In This Article
What is Meth (Methamphetamine)?
Meth or methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that impacts the central nervous system (CNS). It is incredibly addictive and longer-lasting than its parent drug, amphetamine. Your body will take at least 12 hours to eliminate 50% of the drug from your system.
Similar to amphetamine, methamphetamine can lead to:
- Higher activity and talkativeness
- Loss of appetite
- Euphoria (an extreme sensation of pleasure and happiness)
However, unlike amphetamine at similar doses, more methamphetamine can enter the brain.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), methamphetamine is a Schedule II drug. This means that it has a high potential for abuse and could result in severe psychological and physical dependence.
Its common street names include:
- Bikers coffee
A legal, pharmaceutical form of methamphetamine is available as a non-refillable prescription to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder in which a person falls asleep without warning at inappropriate moments throughout the day.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes a person to be overly active or have trouble focusing and managing impulsive behaviors.
An estimated 1.6 million people in the United States reported using methamphetamine in the last year.2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
Side Effects & Risks of Meth Use
Methamphetamine may have the following short-term side effects:
- More alertness and physical activity
- Loss of appetite
- More rapid breathing
- Hypertension (increased blood pressure)
- Cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) or tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
- Hyperthermia (higher body temperature)
Long-term side effects may include:
- Extreme weight loss
- Severe tooth decay and gum disease (“meth mouth”)
- Excess itching and skin sores caused by scratching
- Neurological changes
- Memory loss
- Violent behavior
Methamphetamine use carries many health risks.
For example, people who inject the stimulant drug have a higher risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis B and C. This could happen because non-sterile drug equipment has blood or other bodily fluids containing the virus(es).
Similarly, injecting methamphetamine users can become heavily dependent and have difficulty overcoming financial difficulties and social problems. They may also have an increased risk of mental health problems.
Methamphetamine can also lead to changes in judgment and decision-making. This means that people on methamphetamine could participate in risky behaviors like unprotected sex and have an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections or sexual violence.
Finally, illegal methamphetamine production could expose people to harmful chemicals and possible burns and explosions. Life-threatening injuries and conditions may occur as a result.
One study has suggested that people who once took methamphetamine have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (a gradual nerve system disorder that impacts movement).A study by Curtin et al. in Drug Alcohol Dependency Journal
What Causes Methamphetamine Overdoses?
Methamphetamine belongs to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Schedule II classification group. This means that this drug has a high potential for abuse and can cause physical and psychological dependence.
Because methamphetamine is commonly misused, there is an increased risk of overdose.
The following are some explanations as to why a person may have a methamphetamine overdose:
Taking higher doses than prescribed or using illicit meth
People may increase their dose because the drug no longer has the same effect as it did before. However, this is dangerous. Methamphetamine is a potent drug and remains in the body for a long time.
Some people may overdose on meth to die by suicide. Too much of this drug can impact the body dramatically and possibly cause a heart attack or stroke. These health conditions could result in death.
Mixing with other substances
Methamphetamine can have drug-alcohol or drug-drug interactions.
When this happens, you could become disoriented and lose good judgment. This change in decision-making may lead you to take more of the drug to get high. Also, it is not rare for people who inject methamphetamine to have a history of opioid injection and heavy polydrug use. Polydrug use is when you mix drugs or take one drug while under the influence of another drug.
What Happens When Someone Overdoses on Meth?
There are two different types of methamphetamine overdose:
- An acute (sudden) methamphetamine overdose occurs when someone takes meth by accident or on purpose. Side effects can be deadly.
- A chronic (long-term) methamphetamine overdose refers to the health consequences of using meth on a regular basis.
In acute methamphetamine overdose, a person may accidentally or purposefully take the drug and have life-threatening side effects. These side effects could include multiple organ failure, hyperthermia (higher body temperature), and more.
In chronic methamphetamine overdose, the negative health effects take place over time in someone who regularly uses the drug. This could include delusional behavior, repeated infections, and more.
Meth Overdose Symptoms
If you overdose on methamphetamine, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Coma or unresponsiveness (in extreme cases)
- Heart attack
- Hypotension (low blood pressure)
- Cardiac arrhythmias (Irregular or stopped heartbeat)
- Dyspnea (trouble breathing)
- Hyperthermia (high body temperature)
- Renal failure (kidney damage)
- Severe stomach pain
Low-level exposure to methamphetamine for a long time could damage as much as 50% of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that gives you the feeling of pleasure or happiness.
What to Do if You Suspect an Overdose
If you suspect a person is experiencing an overdose, you should call your local emergency number (911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
It is crucial to seek emergency medical help for a person who has taken methamphetamine and has bad symptoms. Because of the powerful effects of methamphetamine, you’ll want to be extremely careful around a person who has overdosed. This holds especially true if the person in question seems extremely excited or paranoid.
If the person is overdosing and experiencing a seizure, you’ll need to gently hold the back of their head and turn it to the side, if possible. This action can help prevent injury and asphyxiation (choking) by vomit. It is important not to stop the arms and legs from shaking or place anything in the person’s mouth.
Treatment for an Overdose
If an individual overdoses on methamphetamines, go and get immediate medical help.
In overdoses (or acute intoxication), doctors may use physical restraints to prevent self-harm or harm to others. Physical restraints may be bandages or cuffs that restrict a person’s movement. People who overdose may turn hostile because of a methamphetamine-causing paranoia.
Doctors will aim to treat life-threatening signs and symptoms, if present, including:
- A compromised airway
- Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
- Hyperthermia (high body temperature)
Doctors may also administer benzodiazepines and antipsychotics for sedation and seizure management. If individual patients are awake, activated charcoal may be a treatment option. Activated charcoal helps bind toxins to it and limit the absorption of meth and/or other drugs in the digestive tract.
To help with urinary elimination of the drug and prevent sudden kidney failure, doctors may administer a crystalloid (mineral salts and other small, water-soluble molecules) intravenously (IV).
Death from methamphetamine toxicity is frequent. These deaths often include arrhythmias, intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding with the skull), and cardiogenic shock (when the body cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s demands).
Can Stimulant Overdoses Cause Permanent Damage?
Yes. Depending on case severity, a stimulant overdose could lead to irreversible damage.
Overdosing on stimulants can lead to very high blood pressure and body temperature. These clinical changes can put a lot of pressure on various body organs and cause them to function improperly or even fail.
An example is severe kidney failure, which may require dialysis (kidney machine) for the rest of a person’s life. Although doctors may provide treatment, the damage can be excessive and become permanent.
Also, long-term use of stimulants and stimulant overdose could result in memory loss and insomnia (difficulty sleeping).
In the case of methamphetamines, mental health problems may be long-lasting. This includes psychosis and chronic anxiety.
Finally, a large stimulant overdose can cause death.
Treatment for Methamphetamine Use/Addiction
If you or a loved one have problems overcoming a methamphetamine addiction, help is possible.
Here is a list of some therapy options:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — healthcare specialists may suggest the Matrix Model. This is a 16-week approach for those who abuse methamphetamine. It is a comprehensive program, including behavioral therapy, family education, personal counseling, 12-step support, drug testing, and encouragement for non-drug-related activities.
- Inpatient treatment centers — detoxification and withdrawal are complicated and dangerous processes without proper medical supervision. These clinics provide that guidance by giving medical and psychological support every step of the way.
- Contingency management interventions — these programs give incentives if you adhere to treatment and maintain abstinence.
Currently, there are no drugs available to counteract the effects of methamphetamines or those caused by long-term abstinence. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has conceived a method called MIEDAR (Motivation Incentives for Enhancing Drug Abuse Recovery). The incentive-based approach has been shown to encourage cocaine and methamphetamine abstinence.
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- McKetin, Rebecca, et al. “Methamphetamine Addiction.” Principles of Addiction, Academic Press, 15 Feb. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012398336700070X.
- “Methamphetamine Overdose: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8 Feb. 2021, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007480.htm.
- “Methamphetamine.” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration , United States Government, www.dea.gov/factsheets/methamphetamine.
- NIDA. "Methamphetamine DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16 May. 2019, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
- NIDA. "What is the scope of methamphetamine misuse in the United States?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 8 Apr. 2020, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-scope-methamphetamine-misuse-in-united-states Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
- Richards, John R. “Methamphetamine Toxicity.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Nov. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430895/.
- “What Treatments Are Effective for People Who Misuse Methamphetamine?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 9 Apr. 2020, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/methamphetamine/what-treatments-are-effective-people-who-misuse-methamphetamine.