Methamphetamine: Definition & Signs of Abuse

What is Meth?

Amphetamines are legal, stimulant drugs that doctors use to treat ADHD (Adderall) or narcolepsy (Dexedrine). In the early 20th century, and still very rarely today, amphetamines were even prescribed for weight loss.

Methamphetamine, usually just called “meth”, however, is a more aggressive stimulant. Meth can be legally prescribed in very rare cases, but it’s more often made illegally from harmful chemicals. Meth is much more potent than medicinal amphetamines. When it is sold illegally, common nicknames for it include speed, crank, and crystal. 


As is common for many illicit substances, [meth] was originally created for pharmaceutical uses.

Because methamphetamine is a stimulant, it increases activity in the brain and body, but wears off quickly. Because of this, it’s usually made quickly and cheaply, with many toxic and noxious chemicals. 

What Does Meth Look Like? 

Methamphetamines can come in a powder, or a pill, and can be either snorted, ingested, or injected. Probably most visible in pop culture, however, is crystal meth. This is a more concentrated version that is synthesized into clear or white crystals, or ‘rocks.’ Crystal meth is usually melted in a pipe and smoked.

Are There Legal Meth Prescriptions?

It might be shocking to some, but a legal form of methamphetamine can be prescribed by doctors. Desoxyn is used to treat severe cases of ADHD and obesity. Only 16000 prescriptions of desoxyn are prescribed annually. 

History of Meth

Methamphetamines have been around for much longer than most illegal drugs. Meth was first formulated in 1893. As is common for many illicit substances, it was originally created for pharmaceutical uses. Doctors initially prescribed it for narcolepsy.

The chemist Nagai Nagayoshi isolated the active ingredient from the ephedra plant which was used as a stimulant for 1000s of years. This active ingredient is called ephedrine.

Methamphetamines were first synthesized shortly after. Akira Ogata, another Japanese chemist, created the purest, most potent form of ephedrine into a crystal form in 1919.

During WWII, both the Axis and Allies famously used it to keep troops awake and functioning for long hours. Throughout the 50s and 60s, doctors prescribed the stimulant to treat depression and obesity.

The 1950s saw a rise in Benzedrine, or an inhaler version of methamphetamines. However, these were banned by the US government in 1959. All other forms of methamphetamines weren’t restricted in the US until 1970. Currently, the DEA lists it as a Schedule II drug.

How Meth Addiction Spread in the US

The ‘meth epidemic’ didn’t really start until the 1990s. Ephedrine was heavily regulated at the time, but pseudoephedrine was found in almost every cold medicine. Illegal drug manufacturers started to use this less potent cousin of ephedrine to synthesize methamphetamines.

In 2020, 2.6 million people had used meth at least once that year.

The Global Scope of Meth Addiction

Meth use has quickly become a global problem as labs continue to become more efficient at exporting their product to neighboring countries.

Across the globe, authorities have seized 325 tons of methamphetamine. The United Nations states that law enforcement seizures of methamphetamine have increased 43% from 2020 to 2021. Half of the global supply of methamphetamine comes from North America, Thailand, and Mexico.

The US is a hotspot for methamphetamine use and production. As medicines and pseudoephedrine have moved behind the pharmacy counter, makers of methamphetamine have switched to other ingredients, including lye, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, or acetone to synthesize it. These new methods create a more pure, but also more dangerous product.

Meth use has quickly become a global problem as labs continue to become more efficient at exporting their product to neighboring countries.

The National Institutes on Health found that between 2015 and 2019, overdose deaths caused by non-cocaine stimulants tripled. In that same time frame, however, use of methamphetamine increased by only 43%. The NIH believes this indicates more risky behaviors associated with methamphetamine use, and these more potent synthetic versions of it. 

What Does Meth Do to The Brain and Body? 

Methamphetamine is a stimulant, meaning it increases certain brain activity. Specifically, it increases the amount of dopamine that is released into the brain. 

Dopamine and norepinephrine are two neurotransmitters that control mood and excitability. Having more of each released into your brain often makes a person feel ‘happy,’ and even causes some to become ‘jittery.’

The release of dopamine is generally what is responsible for addiction, since that is the ‘feel good’ or ‘reward’ hormone. Most illicit drugs cause a release of dopamine, which makes one feel euphoric and blissful. It’s one reason why someone might abuse meth: they want to feel that good again.

The body’s tolerance for meth increases quickly, meaning a higher dose is needed to feel these same effects.

Symptoms of Meth Use

Some symptoms of a meth high include:

  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Increased body temperature
  • Constant restlessness and lack of sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Stimulants can cause your body systems to ‘rev up.’ You might’ve experienced this in the way coffee can make you feel energized, if not anxious and fidgety. Meth users are sometimes referred to as "tweakers" (in a derogatory sense) because a meth high also includes anxiousness, jitters, and a lot of extra energy.

Smoking or injecting meth causes what many describe as a ‘rush’. It’s instant, and it’s euphoric. This rush is the first big release of dopamine in your brain. The experience of a rush is slightly more gradual when meth is snorted or ingested.

How Long Does a Meth High Last? 

This high, and the other stimulating effects only last about eight hours. When the methamphetamine wears off, the user is left feeling depressed and lethargic. Some call it ‘the crash’. People that abuse meth will often try to avoid this crash by binging on it for days at a time. 

Effects of Meth

Unfortunately, the experienced excitement and euphoria of a meth high cause many to abuse the deadly substance. Most makers, or ‘cooks,’ have to get the chemicals to create it from extraordinarily toxic sources, like battery acid and cleaning products. These poisonous substances are the reason that it’s such a dangerous drug.

The stimulant effects not only make you more alert and energized, but they cause many nerves in your central nervous system to overreact. This is why a lot of people that use methamphetamine feel itchy, or like their skin is crawling. 

Meth Mouth, Skin sores, and Other Long-Term Effects of Meth Use

The long-term side effects of using methamphetamine are notorious. Not only are long-time users constantly shaky and jittery, the effects of the chemicals used to make methamphetamine start to take their toll on the body.  

The skin-crawling feeling we mentioned known as ‘meth mites,’ results in one of the most tell-tale signs of meth use: ‘meth sores’. Due to a user’s constant scratching the skin for relief from they develop open wounds all over their body. ‘Meth face’ is where these sores appear on the facial skin, often accompanied by ‘meth eyes’ that are deeply sunken in with dark circles. 

‘Meth mouth’ is the term for severe tooth decay in those that abuse meth. It’s one of the most common traits next to the scabs caused by the violent itching. Additionally, the loss of appetite will often result in significant weight loss. 

Psychological Signs of Meth Use

Some other indicators of long term meth use are:

  • Anxiety
  • Violent and aggressive behavior
  • Risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, long-term methamphetamine abuse can permanently change the dopamine pathways that are responsible for memory and verbal learning. This also includes functions related to emotional regulation and memory. Though reversal is possible, it becomes less likely the longer the person is abusing methamphetamine. 

In extreme cases, frequent use can lead to meth induced psychosis. Hallucinations and paranoia caused by meth psychosis can lead to violent behavior.

Meth Addiction Increases Risk for Other Diseases

Meth use and abuse comes with its own set of dangers, but it also opens doors to other diseases. The NIDA found that methamphetamine misuse can even increase the risk for Parkinson’s disease.

Because methamphetamine can be injected, sharing needles isn’t uncommon. HIV, and Hepatitis B and C are all spread through contact of bodily fluids like blood. HIV in particular seems to affect those who use meth more than those who don’t. The nerve cells of people who use meth are damaged more by HIV than the nerve cells of people who don’t.


As a stimulant, methamphetamine overdoses look a lot different than that of opioids or alcohol. Body temperature can get dangerously high, the heart beats extremely fast, and blood pressure rapidly rises. Seizures are also fairly common symptoms. These can all lead to heart attack and stroke. 

Unfortunately, a lot of methamphetamine is laced with other drugs—including fentanyl. In 2017, about half of methamphetamine overdoses involved fentanyl. This compounds the risk of overdose or even death as both substances are potent and deadly by themselves. 

Meth Withdrawal Symptoms

Choosing to pursue sobriety has more benefits than we can count here. One short-term downside, however, is meth withdrawal symptoms. 

While the symptoms of meth withdrawal can be painful, they last only a short while, and detox is worth it to start the journey to recovery.

Because the body acclimates to the amount of dopamine meth releases, it has to readjust to its absence. In the case of methamphetamine, withdrawal usually happens in two phases.

The first 24 hours are quite intense with significant cravings and an intense crash. The next three weeks or so is called the ‘subacute’ phase. The symptoms are less extreme, but this is when the anxiety and depression can set in.

Some other symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Psychosis or hallucinations
  • Meth cravings
  • Headaches and nausea
  • Tremors and muscle spasms

The intensity of withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on how much and how long a person has been using meth, and their general health. However, once their appetite and healthy sleeping patterns return, their overall health will improve, which can ease withdrawal symptoms.  

While the symptoms of meth withdrawal can be painful, they last only a short while, and detox is worth it to start the journey to recovery. 

It’s Never Too Late to Get Help for Meth Addiction

Meth addiction is scary, but it’s possible to overcome. The longer you use it, the more damage it does to your body. Seeking treatment early is the best way towards better physical and mental health. 

If you are concerned about methamphetamine use for you or someone you love, call Sequoia Behavioral Health. Our approach removes the shame from addiction, and creates hope for the future. Start your journey to recovery today.