Meth Abuse & Addiction

Written by Melissa Carmona

& Medically Reviewed by Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD

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Last Updated - 08/11/2023

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Updated 08/11/2023

Meth abuse, addiction and overdose deaths in the United States have been increasing for years. If you or a loved one struggles with meth, it is important to be aware of the drug’s potential for abuse and addiction and recognize the signs of meth abuse and meth overdose.

What Is Meth?

Methamphetamine, or meth, is a stimulant that is most often illegally trafficked into the United States by Mexican drug cartels. It can be smoked, snorted, injected or taken orally. When someone takes meth, they experience an intense high and a “rush” of good feelings. Using meth can create a sense of pleasure, euphoria, happiness, self-confidence and energy.

Meth comes in a couple of different forms, including a white powdered form that is sometimes pressed into tablets. It can also come in a glassy rock form called crystal meth.

A high from meth can be very long-lasting compared to other stimulants. The initial rush from meth can last up to 30 minutes. This rush is followed by a longer-lasting high that can persist for up to 16 hours.

People who use meth can experience side effects like extreme aggression and psychotic episodes. The drug can also cause damage to major organs, including the heart and brain. Over time, it changes the appearance of users, making a person look much older than they actually are and causing dental problems.

Understanding Meth Addiction

Meth is a Schedule II controlled substance in the United States, meaning that it has a high risk of abuse, addiction and dependence. When you use methamphetamine, it releases chemicals in your brain that cause euphoria. These include dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in the reward and motivation centers of your brain.

When the drug wears off, your brain is sapped of dopamine and serotonin, leaving you feeling anxious and depressed. During this crash, a person may have strong cravings to take more meth. This cycle of binging and crashing, paired with meth’s triggers to the brain’s reward system, can lead to addiction.

Is Meth Physically Addictive?

Like many drugs, meth can be physically addictive. Physical addiction occurs when your body feels like it needs the drug to function in a normal way, and you experience withdrawal without it.

When you are physically addicted to meth and quit, you may have withdrawal symptoms like agitation, depression, increased appetite and muscle aches.

These symptoms can vary based on factors such as how long and how much meth you took. The heavier your meth use, the higher your risk for physical meth addiction will be. In a recent study by The Recovery Village, 71% of current and former meth users in the Western United States qualified as heavy meth users. 

How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Meth?

Drug addiction is complex, and its course depends on the person, so the time it takes to get addicted to a drug like meth can vary widely. Meth addiction occurs when a person finds it hard to stop taking the substance despite harmful consequences, like job loss or legal problems.

The Effects of Meth & Meth Addiction

Meth use can wreak havoc on both your brain and body. This is true both in the short term and long term. The longer you use the drug, the more at risk you are for addiction and serious short and long-term side effects.

Short Term Effects of Meth

Even if you only use meth occasionally, you can experience a variety of physical and psychological effects from short-term use. Physical effects from short-term meth use include:

  • Appetite loss
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated temperature
  • Wide pupils
  • Problems sleeping
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Death

Short-term meth use can also cause psychological effects, like:

  • Erratic behavior
  • Violence
  • Hallucinations
  • Irritability
  • Overexcitement
  • Panic
  • Psychosis

Long-Term Effects of Meth

Over the long term, meth can cause permanent damage to your body and brain. Some of these effects may be irreversible. Both physical and psychological long-term consequences can occur from meth use. Long-term physical effects of meth include:

  • Permanent damage to blood vessels in the heart and brain
  • High blood pressure, a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and lungs
  • Destruction of nasal tissues if the meth is snorted
  • Lung and breathing problems if the meth is smoked
  • Infectious diseases if the meth is injected
  • Malnutrition
  • Severe dental problems
  • Epilepsy

Some mental health and cognitive problems from long-term meth use include:

  • Confusion, exhaustion, disorientation and apathy
  • Psychosis
  • Depression
  • Cognitive changes similar to Alzheimer’s disease

According to recent data, 87% of Westerners who used meth reported having meth-related health complications:

  • 1 in 3 local meth users reported dental problems known as “meth mouth” (34%)
  • 1 in 4 local meth users reported nasal damage (23%)
  • 1 in 4 local meth users reported high blood pressure (24%)
  • 1 in 6 local meth users reported hallucinations (16%)
  • 1 in 10 local meth users reported liver and kidney damage (11%)
  • 8% of local meth users reported seizures
  • 7% of local meth users reported a heart attack or stroke

The Effects of Secondhand Exposure to Meth

Even if a person does not use meth, being around others while they are using or making the drug can be dangerous. This phenomenon is called secondhand exposure.

Several different dangers are linked to secondhand meth exposure. Children who are around people who use meth are especially at risk, especially for lung, skin and dental problems.

In addition, meth is often made using chemical reactions with a variety of toxic substances like sulfuric acid and acetone. Some of these chemicals may linger on surfaces. For this reason, it is dangerous to even be in the same building in which meth is made. Consequences of secondhand exposure to some of the toxic chemicals used to make meth include:

  • Poisoning
  • Chemical burns
  • Damage to the lungs, liver, heart, kidneys, brain and immune system
  • Cancers like leukemia and lymphoma
  • Anemia
  • Infections
  • Developmental and growth problems in children

Meth Overdose

Taking too much meth can cause an overdose, which can be fatal. Because of its stimulant effects on the body, meth overdose can cause a stroke, heart attack or organ damage from high body temperature. Further, meth lasts for hours in the body, putting a person in danger of overdose all the while.

Among surveyed meth users in the Western United States, 1 in 3 meth users have gone to the hospital for an overdose or other meth-related emergency (33%), while 18% overdosed without getting to medical care in time. 

Meth Overdose Treatment

If you suspect a meth overdose, it is important to seek emergency medical attention as soon as possible. Although a meth overdose can be treated, it needs to be done in a hospital environment where a medical team can closely monitor the overdose victim for complications like heart attack and stroke. You will not get in legal trouble for seeking help for an overdose: you will be saving someone’s life.

Signs of Meth Use

If you’re concerned or have your suspicions about a loved one, you might be wondering what the signs of meth use are or what the symptoms of meth use can be.

Some of the most common symptoms of meth use are:

  • Increased wakefulness
  • Increased energy
  • Appetite loss
  • Rapid breathing
  • Fast heart rate
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature

With chronic use, symptoms of meth abuse may also include violence, anxiety, confusion, trouble sleeping and psychosis.

Meth Addiction Signs

As a person becomes addicted to meth, it becomes their sole focus in their life. Signs of meth addiction can include lying, stealing or criminal activities done to support the habit, becoming deceitful or withdrawing from friends or family, and becoming entirely preoccupied with meth use.

Physical Signs of Meth Addiction

When a person struggles with meth, their friends and loved ones may notice a change in their appearance. Common changes include:

  • Weight loss: Chronic abusers of meth will often lose a lot of weight due to appetite loss. Roughly 28% of meth users in the Western United States reported sudden or severe weight loss.
  • Premature aging: Those who struggle with meth often appear to age quickly. This is due to meth causing the release of chemicals in the body that accelerate cell aging.
  • Skin problems: Skin scabs and sores are common in people who use meth. This occurs because meth causes people to hallucinate and feel like things are crawling on them, so they pick at their skin. About 32% of Westerners who used meth reported sores, abscesses or skin infections.
  • Dental problems: Also known as “meth mouth,” dental problems linked to meth include tooth decay, gum disease, dry mouth and general oral health problems. Meth dries out the mouth, stopping the production of saliva that would normally combat acid from eroding tooth enamel. People who are addicted to meth may also neglect their oral hygiene. About 35% of meth users living in Western states like Colorado reported “meth mouth,” while 32% reported broken teeth specifically.

Meth Addiction Outlook

Without help, meth addiction is very difficult to overcome. The powerful physical dependence caused by meth makes the drug one of the hardest substances to quit. Fortunately, with help, recovery from meth addiction is possible. Nonetheless, lapses and relapses are common, impacting more than 90% of those who struggle with meth.

Meth Addiction Treatment

Studies have shown that treatment for meth addiction can significantly improve the chances of long-term recovery. Factors that are linked to successfully recovering from meth include spending time in rehab and being involved in aftercare after rehab is complete. Starting at higher levels of care is also associated with good outcomes. More than half of Westerners who attended meth rehab (57%) started at the most intensive level of care: inpatient treatment.

Regardless of what rehab treatment you start with, the first step in beating a meth addiction is detox. During medical detox, the drug is cleansed from your body while you are under medical supervision to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Following detox, the hard work of rehab can take place to help you learn coping strategies for living a meth-free life.

Meth Addiction Stats

Statistics about meth addiction in the United States can help to show the scope of the meth epidemic. These numbers show that if you struggle with meth, you are not alone.

  • About 0.7% of the U.S. population, or 2 million people, use meth.
  • Around 0.2% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 years use meth.
  • Most meth users (1.7 million people) are over the age of 26.
  • About 275,000 people aged 18 to 25 years use meth in the United States.
  • Every day in 2019 added another 510 new meth users.

Related Topic: Meth Abuse, Addiction and Recovery Study by The Recovery Village

Find the Help You or Your Loved One Needs

If you or a loved one struggles with meth addiction or abuse, help is here. Our meth recovery experts at The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake can help you start on a path to a meth-free life. Contact us today to learn more.


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