Crystal meth is an amphetamine-based psychostimulant that comes in clear crystal form. This drug has no legal use, and it is both highly addictive and physically destructive. Like other methamphetamine-based drugs, crystal meth releases a huge surge of dopamine in the brain of the person who takes it, which means that it is very easy to become addicted to the drug. Although this drug can be crushed and snorted or eaten, most people who abuse crystal meth tend to smoke the drug in a pipe.
In low doses, methamphetamine drugs like Ritalin or Adderall can help to improve some symptoms of depression, treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and even help people with narcolepsy. Methamphetamine medications increase concentration and energy; however, in large doses, they can be dangerous and cause significant health issues.
In addition, various illegal forms of methamphetamine are especially dangerous. Crystal meth in particular is very concentrated and pure, compared to meth in powder or pill form, so it has a stronger and longer-lasting impact on the body. Typically, a crystal meth high lasts for 12 hours.
Crystal meth is made with pseudoephedrine in home labs, which means that the US has, in the last decade, started to tightly regulate the sale of over-the-counter cold and flu medications. Although the majority of meth comes from Mexican “super labs,” home labs are becoming more popular in the US. These are toxic due to the chemicals released in the process of making crystal meth, and sometimes, these labs explode due to the pressure created in the reaction vessel. Toxic chemicals released after a meth lab explosion can endanger people who live in the area for months or years.
Signs and Symptoms of Crystal Meth Abuse
There are many signs of crystal meth abuse. A few of these include:
- Rapid, extreme weight loss
- Changes to teeth, loss of teeth, tooth decay, and gum disease
- Rapid mood fluctuations, irritability, and aggression
- Confusion and anxiety
- Abandoning regular grooming practices
- Asking for money repeatedly
- Engaging in criminal activities to acquire crystal meth or ingredients to make it
Often, a person who chronically abuses crystal meth will “tweak.” This refers to a cluster of psychological and physical symptoms that appear when a person on crystal meth or another amphetamine has not slept for 3-15 days. These symptoms include twitching and jerking limbs, rapid eye movements, confused or incoherent speech, paranoia, and violent behaviors. People who experience tweaking become frustrated because the crystal meth they take does not induce euphoria as it did when they started their bender.
People with undiagnosed health problems who use crystal meth are at a higher risk of death from heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure. This is also true for people who are taking antidepressants and then use crystal meth.
Other, more immediate side effects of crystal meth can cause sensations like:
- Elevated body temperature to the point of passing out
- Severe itching, sometimes leading to hallucinations of bugs crawling on the skin
- Feeling edgy, overly excited, or jumpy
- Increased libido
- Loss of inhibition
- Heart arrhythmia or palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Rapid breathing
- Twitching, tremors, or obsessively repeating behaviors
- Anxious to the point of being unable to sleep or concentrate
The most obvious and specific symptom of crystal meth abuse is “meth mouth,” or the pattern of tooth destruction and decay that is typical in many people who become addicted to this drug. The ingredients in crystal meth are bad for the teeth; some of these ingredients can include cough syrup, drain cleaner, or battery acid. After a person has taken crystal meth, the induced anxiety and compulsive behaviors often lead the individual to clench or grind their teeth, leading to breaking tooth structure. The damage is not addressed because people struggling with an addiction to crystal meth often neglect personal hygiene. Most people who abuse crystal meth get dry mouth as well, and teeth become damaged when they don’t have the protective coating offered by saliva.
Many people who are struggling with crystal meth addiction report craving high-sugar foods or drinks, which can further damage teeth. When people are high on crystal meth, they are unlikely to focus on oral hygiene, making “meth mouth” much worse.
There are some other physical side effects of crystal meth abuse to watch out for. These include:
- Sores that don’t heal
- Loss of skin elasticity, which accelerates the aging process
- Damage to blood vessels and other tissues
- Poor diet, leading to malnutrition and low body weight
Who Most Often Abuses Crystal Meth?
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, methamphetamine abuse, including abuse of crystal meth, tapered off around 2008, affecting under 1 million people in the United States. However, around 2010, abuse of these stimulants began to rise again, hitting 1 million people that year, and rising to 1.2 million people by 2012. The number of methamphetamine-related emergency room visits rose as well, in part due to the rise of crystal meth abuse. In 2007, there were 67,954 ER visits due to methamphetamines, which rose to 102,961 in 2011.
The methamphetamine-related ER visits tended to involve a combination of methamphetamines and other drugs, particularly alcohol, marijuana, or opioid drugs. About 62 percent of the emergency department visits in 2011 were the result of combining methamphetamines like crystal meth and other drugs.
Additionally, young people are more likely to struggle with crystal meth abuse or addiction than older adults. When crystal meth first became popular in the 1990s, it was associated with dance clubs and large parties, which meant that people who took crystal meth typically had taken other drugs or consumed alcohol. Still, any age group can become susceptible to crystal meth abuse, including adults who use it to lose weight or people who struggle with depression and attempt to self-medicate the issue.
Crystal Meth’s Dangers
There are a huge number of physical and mental problems associated with using crystal meth. Psychological problems that can persist include:
- Delusions, especially formication, or the sensation of bugs crawling on the skin
- Hallucinations, both visual and auditory
When people struggle with addiction to crystal meth, they will experience long-term chemical and structural changes in the brain that most likely cannot be undone. In some cases, this can trigger psychosis, while in other cases, it can reduce learning and cognition. Motor and verbal skills can be impaired as well.
People who abuse crystal meth will experience heightened libido and decreased inhibitions due to the dopamine surge, which puts these individuals at a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV.
Being around the chemicals used to create crystal meth is a hazard, not only because these chemicals are abrasive and destructive to body tissues, but because the meth lab can cause a fire or explosion.
Getting Help for Crystal Meth Abuse
Because of the serious dangers associated with using crystal meth, it is important to get help for abuse of this drug as soon as possible. Although some changes to the brain may not be reversible, in many cases, the effects of crystal meth abuse can improve greatly when a person successfully abstains from the drug for over a year.
When people begin the withdrawal process from methamphetamine drugs like crystal meth, they may experience symptoms like:
- Anhedonia, or loss of feeling happiness or pleasure
- Moodiness, irritability, or anxiety
- Hunger, as appetite is no longer being suppressed
- Strong cravings for the drug
Because crystal meth is so addictive, it is important to work with a medical professional in a rehabilitation program to safely work through these symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse. Inpatient rehabilitation can be especially important for people who struggle with crystal meth addiction; the setting removes them from access to the drug, and medical oversight can ease some of the tougher withdrawal symptoms.
Medications like bupropion, the active ingredient in some antidepressants like Wellbutrin, can stabilize many brain chemicals and reduce the surge of dopamine associated with taking crystal meth.
In people who suffer psychosis, antipsychotic medications can be used to ease paranoia or delusions. Anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed in very small, monitored doses to ease cravings and agitation in people overcoming crystal meth addiction. There are also many research studies into medications that may help people who suffer from an addiction to methamphetamines, like crystal meth, so there will be even more ways to treat these individuals in years to come.
The most important aspect of any drug rehabilitation program is psychological and emotional support. Not only is it important for friends and family to support people while they work to overcome their addiction to crystal meth, but rehabilitation programs also offer both individual and group therapy as additional forms of support. Therapy helps clients learn better coping mechanisms for cravings and stresses, and also helps them identify the reasons that led to the initial substance abuse.