Meth Addiction: Health Effects, Detox, & Treatment
What Is Crystal Meth?
Crystal meth is an illicit type of methamphetamine—a central nervous system stimulant substance commonly encountered as a powder or bluish white or clear rock form.2
The majority of the meth supply in the United States is manufactured illicitly; however, a pharmaceutical prescription version of the drug is approved for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.1 For the purpose of this page, the terms methamphetamine, meth, and crystal meth, are used somewhat interchangeably—as they often are in conversation—all three terms refer to the same substance.
Meth can be:1
- Taken orally.
- Dissolved in water or other solution and injected.
Methamphetamine use yields a strong, euphoric high that can sometimes make people feel energized and alert for several hours. Smoking or injecting the drug can result in a particularly powerful rush that is felt almost immediately.3
Crystal meth is commonly used in a “binge and crash” pattern, in which someone will go on a “run,” using the drug repeatedly every few hours for days or even weeks at a time.1 During a run, it is common for someone to avoid eating and sleeping before crashing and sleeping for 24–48 hours.4
How Common Is Crystal Meth Addiction?
Methamphetamine is extremely addictive:
- Methamphetamine use has steadily increased every year since 2016. In 2019, 1.7 million people in the U.S. age 26 and older used meth within the past year.4
- Around 635,000 people age 12 or older received treatment for meth addiction in 2019.5
Meth elicits a powerful, euphoric high and leads to increased activity of dopamine, a signaling molecule in the brain associated with motivation and reward. This increase in dopamine activity is thought to reinforce repeated or continued meth use and may underlie the development of compulsive patterns of use of the drug.1
Over time, repeated meth use can lead to some persistent alterations in brain functioning, which helps explain certain cognitive and emotional issues associated with chronic meth use, as well as why relapse risks may remain even after long periods of abstinence from the drug.1, 6
Addiction is a complex mental health issue. Several different factors may contribute to its development and vary from one individual to the next. These factors include:7
- Genetics, which could account for about half of someone’s risk for addiction development.
- The presence of any additional mental health conditions.
- Environmental influences, including general quality of life, exposure to stressors (including physical or sexual abuse), and different parenting styles.
- Substance use at a young age.
How to Know if Someone Has a Meth Addiction
Some people addicted to crystal meth may exhibit noticeable behavioral changes. These might include:1, 4, 8, 9
- Compulsive, repetitive actions (like excessive cleaning or “stereotyped” movements).
- Aggressive behavior.
- Becoming increasingly isolated.
- Lack of appetite that leads to weight loss.
- Caring less about physical appearance.
- Picking and scratching at skin, leaving sores.
While these signs may be indicative of meth addiction, only a doctor or another qualified treatment professional can make an official diagnosis for a stimulant use disorder.
Signs of Meth Addiction
Health Effects and Risks of Methamphetamine
Meth is a very dangerous drug that can cause many severe and lasting health problems. Short-term health effects of meth may include:1, 4, 8
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat.
- High blood pressure.
- Rapid breathing.
- Increased body temperature.
- Paranoia and aggression.
- Psychomotor agitation (spontaneous, purposeless movements or motor restlessness).
Methamphetamine can also lead to overdose or toxicity. A meth overdose may involve severe cardiovascular issues such as stroke and heart attack, which require immediate emergency medical attention.1 Signs of a meth overdose include:8
- Hyperthermia, or dangerously elevated body temperature.
- Abnormally high blood pressure.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Pain in the chest.
- Profuse sweating.
- Labored or irregular breathing.
Illicit methamphetamine is often manufactured using toxic or otherwise dangerous substances.1 Additionally, meth is sometimes cut with cheap, yet extremely potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which greatly increases the risk of fatal overdose, especially in unsuspected users.1, 10
Injecting meth with shared, unsterile needles can also spread blood-borne illnesses like HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Methamphetamine-prompted changes in judgment and decision-making might further be associated with high-risk sexual encounters and contraction of STDs.1
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Meth Addiction?
Prolonged, chronic meth use has many serious negative health effects as well. These may include:1, 4, 11
- Unhealthy weight loss.
- Severe tooth and gum decay (“meth mouth”).
- Decreased coordination.
- Memory problems.
- Difficulty with verbal learning.
- Chronic anxiety.
- Psychotic features such as paranoia and auditory/tactile hallucinations (the perception of being touched or hearing things not actually there).
- Violent behavior.
Among patients with HIV/AIDS, studies suggest that methamphetamine use could lead to additional neurological damage and quicker progression of certain cognitive issues such as a decline in memory.1
Long-term meth use can change how the brain works. Though some of these brain changes—and their related functional impairments—might improve after more than a year of abstinence, other changes may persist longer.1
Detoxing From Meth
When someone has used meth for an extended period, they may experience withdrawal when ceasing or substantially reducing their use.4, 12 Withdrawal symptoms arise as the body adjusts to functioning without a substance.13
Meth withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant, though it is seldom physically dangerous.4, 12
How Long Does Meth Withdrawal Last?
Though a precise duration of meth withdrawal is sometimes difficult to predict from one individual to the next, some patterns have been described in the literature. These patterns may change based on how much meth, on average, a person has been using and for how long. However, acute withdrawal often begins within hours of cessation and can last several days to weeks, or in rarer cases, even longer.4, 8, 12
Meth withdrawal symptoms tend to peak early during acute withdrawal and subside gradually over the course of several weeks. Acute withdrawal may include serious mental health symptoms like severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and paranoia.4
Following acute withdrawal, some people experience cravings and fatigue for 2 weeks or more after quitting meth.4
A more protracted withdrawal syndrome—characterized by depression, lack of interest in surroundings, and the return of meth cravings—affects some people beyond the acute withdrawal period and may last months after someone quits.4
Symptoms of Meth Withdrawal
The character and severity of meth withdrawal can vary based on the amount of meth someone has been using, how long they have been using meth, their history with substance use, their general health, and other factors.4, 12 Potential meth withdrawal symptoms include:4, 8, 12
- Increased appetite.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Insomnia or over-sleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating.
Though stimulant withdrawal is seldom associated with immediate medical dangers, polysubstance use (or use of more than one substance at a time) is relatively common among methamphetamine users. In such instances, different polysubstance withdrawal syndromes can present their own physical risks.4, 12
Other substances (e.g., alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, etc.) often used in conjunction with methamphetamine may have severe or potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that could necessitate close medical management.4, 12
Perhaps the most significant risk faced by people going through meth withdrawal is that of developing a pronounced dysphoria—with depression, negative thoughts, and the potential for suicidality during acute withdrawal.4, 12
Medical supervision during withdrawal helps mitigate these risks and can make a patient more comfortable throughout the experience.12
Coping With Meth Detox
A supervised medical detox can make the withdrawal process safer, especially in cases where someone is at risk of experiencing relatively severe symptoms like depression or other withdrawal complications. There are currently no approved medications for treating meth withdrawal as a whole; however, medications may be prescribed to treat certain symptoms. Medications may be used to manage other symptoms of polysubstance withdrawal, such as those associated with alcohol and/or opioids.4, 12
Medical detox, while an important step toward recovery, is not a substitute for more comprehensive substance use disorder treatment. Long-term recovery often requires repairing negative thought and behavioral patterns through a combination of behavioral therapies offered in a comprehensive program, like those available at River Oaks Treatment Center in Tampa, Florida.6
How to Treat Meth Addiction
Meth addiction is a chronic illness that can have devastating consequences, both to the person afflicted and the people around them. Fortunately, it is treatable.6 Addiction treatment centers primarily use evidence-based therapy methods that enable patients to recognize, avoid, and overcome the triggers that lead them to use substances, as well as form and mend positive, lasting interpersonal relationships and support networks.6, 14
Some therapy methods for addiction treatment that have been proven effective in treating stimulant use disorder include:14–17
- The matrix model, which is a framework for counseling that instills an honest, judgement-free relationship between patient and therapist.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which offers various strategies on adjusting thought patterns.
- Contingency management interventions, in which patients are rewarded for their progress and positive behaviors.
- 12-step facilitation therapy, which sets the foundation for continued care and support following formal treatment.
Treatment is a highly individualized process, so the ideal setting, combination of methods, and duration of care varies depending on the patient’s needs.6 The continuum of care at River Oaks provides the following types of addiction treatment:
- Medical detox.
- Inpatient addiction treatment.
- Residential treatment.
- Partial hospitalization.
- Intensive outpatient care.
Following formal treatment, many people in recovery benefit from aftercare, which helps them build a supportive network and maintain focus on their sobriety.18 Case managers at River Oaks can help facilitate entry into sober living or peer-support programs through the Outcomes Recovery program.
Cost is often a significant barrier between many people and the treatment they need to recover from a meth addiction.5 Fortunately, addiction treatment is covered by most insurance plans and many rehab centers provide options for handling the cost of rehab.19