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What Makes Meth So Addictive?



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Long-term use of methamphetamine, or meth, has been linked to a host of health problems, both physical and mental. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.6 million U.S. adults over the age of 18 reported past-year methamphetamine use between 2015 and 2018. Of that number, more than 52% had a diagnosable methamphetamine use disorder.

Meth is highly addictive and stimulates the central nervous system. The drug has been shown to alter activity in the dopamine system, impacting motor movements and impairing verbal learning. Researchers have observed severe structural and functional changes in the brains of chronic users, particularly in the areas linked to emotion and memory.

Why is Meth So Addictive?

In the short term, methamphetamine makes users feel a sense of euphoria. The drug lessens fatigue and makes the person feel more awake. Other immediate effects of meth use include:

  • decreased appetite
  • faster breathing
  • rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
  • increased blood pressure and body temperature

Because meth creates a rapid release of high levels of dopamine, the drug produces a strong urge in the user to keep taking more so they can continue to stimulate their brain’s reward center.

When someone abuses meth for a period of time, there are devastating physical and mental effects. While some of the changes to the brain may return to normal after the person stops taking the drug, other changes may never reverse. Some long-term effects of meth use include:

  • extreme weight loss
  • severe dental problems (“meth mouth”)
  • intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • memory loss
  • sleeping problems
  • violent behavior
  • paranoia, or an extreme and unreasonable distrust of others
  • hallucinations, or sensations and images that seem real but aren’t

Forms and Misuse of Meth

The most common form of meth is a white power or pill with a bitter taste. This form of meth can be smoked, snorted, injected, or taken orally. Another type of meth is known as crystal meth. This form of the drug can look like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks.

The effects of meth fade quickly. As a result, many people with an addiction to the drug engage in a pattern of bingeing on meth and then crashing. They may also binge by taking methamphetamine in a “run.” This involves the person not eating or sleeping so they can take the drug every few hours, often for several days in a row.

Users often obtain the most intense effects by smoking or injecting meth. This allows the drug to enter into the bloodstream and the brain very quickly, within 3 to 5 minutes. People who take meth this way are at the highest risk of addiction. The rush that comes from smoking or injecting meth lasts for a very short period of time, typically only a few minutes. The high an individual gets from snorting or ingesting meth orally is less intense and takes longer to build, somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes.

Treatment for Meth Overdose and Addiction

Overdosing from meth is a serious risk and can lead to a stroke, heart attack, or other organ problems. Signs of a meth overdose include:

  • Chest pain
  • Arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat
  • Hypertension or hypotension
  • Difficult or labored breathing
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Rapid or slow heartbeat
  • Hyperthermia

Whether or not someone survives a meth overdose will depend on how much meth they have taken and how quickly they receive treatment. The most common overdose treatments include oral activated charcoal and intravenous fluids to prevent side effects like nausea and high blood pressure. Certain medications that deal with specific complications — such as reduced kidney function or heart issues — may also help.

The first step to recovering from meth addiction is detox from the drug. Because withdrawal symptoms can be severe, individuals should undergo detox under medical supervision. The first phase of meth detox is the most intense and lasts about 24 hours, with symptoms lessening over the next week or so. A longer phase, known as the subacute phase, can occur over several weeks.

Once an individual completes detox, they should engage in evidence-based addiction treatment to help them stay off meth for the long term. One such form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps the person find new ways to handle life’s stresses instead of drugs. CBT teaches the individual how to shift their thinking from previous unhealthy patterns to new, more positive responses.

Building on a belief that spiritual development and healthy recovery can bring inner peace to clients overcoming addiction and substance abuse, Into Action Recovery Centers takes a people-centered approach to meth addiction treatment. We are conveniently located in Houston, Texas, and our treatment programs are led by experienced master’s level counselors and medical professionals who specialize in personalized treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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