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What’s the Difference Between Meth and Heroin?
Methamphetamine, commonly referred to as meth or crystal meth, is an illegal stimulant drug. Methamphetamine comes in a white crystal-like rock or powder and is most commonly used by smoking, snorting, and injection.
Street names for methamphetamine include crank, crystal, ice, and speed.
Heroin is an illegal opioid drug made from morphine, which comes from opium poppy plants. Heroin comes in a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. People inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin.
Street names for heroin include smack, big H, hell dust, and horse.
While both cause a high, heroin and meth produce opposite effects. Meth is a stimulant that causes a ‘high’ that lasts between 4 and 14 hours. Heroin is a depressant that slows the activity of the central nervous system (CNS), including breathing. A heroin high is much shorter than a meth high and usually lasts only a few minutes.
Use of either of these powerful illicit drugs can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), also known as ‘drug addiction.’
Which Drug is More Addictive?
A study by neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt found that heroin is the world’s most addictive drug. Heroin causes the quantity of dopamine in the brain to increase by up to 200%. Dopamine is associated with motor function, motivation, reward, and the brain’s pleasure centers.
Regular heroin users often develop a tolerance, which means that they need more of the drug to achieve their desired effects. Heroin is extremely dangerous because the amount that can cause death is only five times greater than the quantity required for a high.
While meth may not be as addictive as heroin, it is still incredibly addictive. The drug also boosts dopamine release, leading to an increase of this chemical in the brain.
Experiencing these unnatural levels of dopamine causes a strong desire to continue using the drug. It becomes addictive because the body experiences intense cravings to maintain the euphoric state, resulting in constant redosing and binge-like behavior.
Frequent meth use can build up a tolerance to the drug that will require a person to take more of the drug to feel the same effects as before.
Meth users may find it challenging to feel happy without meth and will experience withdrawal symptoms when it wears off. These symptoms indicate drug dependence, which can form quickly with chronic meth use and even faster with binge use and higher doses.
Meth vs Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
People who use heroin and stop using the drug suddenly may develop severe withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Sleep problems
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Cold flashes with goosebumps ("cold turkey")
- Uncontrollable leg movements ("kicking the habit")
- Severe heroin cravings
Heroin withdrawal can start as early as only a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Significant withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 to 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people experience withdrawal for many months.
Methamphetamine is also an extremely potent drug that can cause withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing use.
Methamphetamine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Disturbed sleep
- Dry mouth
- Lack of appetite and malnourishment
- Muscle spasms or seizures
- Feeling unmotivated
- Intense cravings for more meth
Methamphetamine withdrawal lasts longer than heroin withdrawal, with cravings and other symptoms lasting up to 5 weeks.
What are the Effects of Crystal Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that can cause many short-term and long-term effects.
Short-term effects of methamphetamine use include:
- Increased attention and decreased fatigue
- Increased activity and wakefulness
- Decreased appetite
- Increased respiration
- Rapid/irregular heartbeat
- Increased blood pressure
Long-term effects of methamphetamine use include:
- Repetitive motor activity
- Changes in brain structure and function
- Deficits in thinking and motor skills
- Increased distractibility
- Memory loss
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Mood disturbances
- Severe dental problems
- Weight loss
How is Crystal Meth Different from Other Stimulants?
Both amphetamine and methamphetamine are psychoactive central nervous system (CNS) stimulant drugs.
The chemical structure of each drug closely resembles the other. However, methamphetamine is more potent than amphetamine.
Because of this, a person may become addicted to meth faster, though both drugs are highly addictive when misused. Methamphetamine also lasts longer and creates a more pronounced euphoric effect, making it more enticing to recreational drug abusers.
Both amphetamine and methamphetamine alter the production of critical neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for mood, energy, and executive function. While both drugs cause a surge of dopamine, research shows that methamphetamine use may produce a more significant amount. One study found that methamphetamine released five times more dopamine than amphetamine. This effect on the brain is likely another reason why methamphetamine is more addictive.
While methamphetamine is structurally similar to amphetamine, it is very different from cocaine.
Although these drugs produce similar behavioral and physiological effects, there are some significant differences in the basic mechanisms of how they work.
In contrast to cocaine, which is quickly removed from and almost completely metabolized in the body, methamphetamine stays in the body longer. This leads to prolonged stimulant effects.
Fifty percent of meth is removed from the body in 12 hours, while 50 percent of cocaine is removed in 1 hour.
What are the Effects of Heroin?
Heroin binds onto opioid receptors in the brain, and affects the areas that control emotions, heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. People who use heroin often report feeling a "rush" (a surge of pleasure or euphoria).
Short-term effects of heroin use include:
- Dry mouth
- Warm flushing of the skin
- Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Clouded mental functioning
- Lowered blood pressure
- "Nodding" or going in between consciousness and unconsciousness
Long-term effects of heroin use include:
- Collapsed veins
- Damaged tissue inside the nose
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
- Digestion problems
- Liver and kidney disease
- Lung complications, including pneumonia
- Sexual dysfunction
- Irregular menstrual cycles
Dangers of Mixing Meth and Heroin
Heroin and methamphetamine are commonly misused together. Both drugs are incredibly addictive and dangerous when taken separately, and mixing them creates far greater danger.
Mixing two drugs is known as polydrug use. Mixing meth and heroin is commonly referred to as “speedballing.” A “speedball” usually involves a combination of a depressant (such as heroin or painkillers) and a stimulant (such as cocaine or methamphetamine).
Taking stimulants with opioids can cause adverse side effects typically associated with the use.
Side effects of mixing meth and heroin include:
- A state of general confusion
- Blurred vision
- Stupor (decreased mental function)
- Uncontrolled and uncoordinated motor skills
The risks of mixing meth and heroin include:
- Heart attack
- Respiratory failure
When meth and heroin are combined, it can be challenging to determine whether too much of either has been taken, increasing the chances of a fatal overdose.
People who use meth and heroin have more severe mental health symptoms than other drug users. Meth and heroin users are more likely to fail in substance use treatment and are at increased risk of contracting HIV infection and Hepatitis C.
Mixing heroin with methamphetamine presents an additional danger to meth users because heroin is often combined with fentanyl, a powerful opioid and the leading cause of fatal drug overdose in the United States.
Treatment for Meth Addiction/Heroin Addiction
A variety of effective drug addiction treatments are available for meth and heroin users. Drug treatment programs include inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, and detox programs.
Heroin and meth are two of the most difficult drug addictions to overcome. This is why anyone addicted to heroin or meth requires professional treatment. People who attempt to quit drug use alone rarely make a lasting recovery.