Crystal Meth Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

In 2020, 2.6 million Americans over the age of 12 reported using methamphetamine in the last year. At the time, 1.5 million people were estimated to have methamphetamine or crystal meth addiction.1

In this article:

What is Crystal Meth?

The word “meth” is sometimes used to describe three different substances, which are actually chemically very different.

Prescription Methamphetamine

Prescription methamphetamine is a stimulant used by doctors under the brand name Desoxyn to treat the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Doctors may also use Desoxyn off-label to induce weight loss.

Desoxyn is available in pill form only with a prescription. It is a Schedule II drug, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers it to have a high potential for physical dependence, psychological dependence, and abuse.2

Illicit Methamphetamine

Prescription methamphetamine is chemically different from illegal street methamphetamine, which is produced in illicit labs using pseudoephedrine or ephedrine–the active ingredient in over-the-counter cough medicine–and other chemicals. Many of these chemicals are extremely toxic, such as paint thinner, ammonia, and battery acid.3

Crystal Meth

Crystal meth is an illegally altered version of Desoxyn. Methamphetamine is manufactured as a pill or powder, but crystal meth gets its name because the manufacturing process produces “crystals” that look similar to shards of glass or bluish rock crystals.4

Why is Crystal Meth So Addictive?

All forms of methamphetamine are classified as Schedule II drugs due to the high risk of addiction if they are misused.1

Crystal meth use causes a surge in dopamine levels. Dopamine is the brain’s “feel good” neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of reward and intense euphoria. This euphoria is generally much more intense than natural rewards like having sex or eating delicious food. The brain then learns to repeat crystal meth use to feel this pleasurable feeling again. As such, people who use crystal meth may experience strong cravings to use it again. And repeated use can ultimately lead to compulsive use, or crystal meth addiction.5

Crystal Meth Compared to Other Stimulants

Most stimulant drugs create similar responses in the body, however, methamphetamine stays in the body much longer, which amplifies its effects on the brain. When compared to cocaine, smoking crystal meth produces:6

  • Prolonged “high” rather than an extremely brief “high”
  • Massive release of dopamine
  • Blocked reuptake of dopamine, which leads to the brain being “flooded” with dopamine

While 50% of cocaine is eliminated from the body 1 hour after smoking, it takes a full 12 hours for 50% of crystal meth to leave the body after use.6

Crystal Meth Compared to Other Forms of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine may be administered using several methods, including taking it as a pill or snorting a powder. Crystal meth is inhaled as smoke.

Research suggests that this method of use may make crystal meth more addictive than other forms of methamphetamine. Studies indicate that drugs that are smoked:7

  • Take effect more quickly
  • Have a longer duration of action
  • Have more intense effects

Can You Become Addicted to Crystal Meth After One Use?

Despite the highly addictive quality of the drug, crystal meth addiction takes more than one use to occur. Mental health professionals categorize the behaviors and symptoms of addiction under the diagnosis of substance use disorders–in this case, stimulant use disorder. Stimulant use disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe.

A person can start chronically using crystal meth in a problematic way immediately after their first use. This pattern of use starts because the massive dopamine flood caused by crystal meth “trains” the brain to repeat the pleasurable behavior.

You may become tolerant to–or need more crystal meth each time–or dependent on crystal meth before you become addicted.

Crystal meth addiction is defined by:8


A pattern of problematic use that causes clinical impairment and distress.

A mental health professional evaluates 11 criteria to determine if you have a stimulant use disorder. These criteria include:8

  • Multiple decisions to stop using crystal meth or attempts to stop that have been unsuccessful
  • Impact on your home, social, or work life
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you do not use crystal meth

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Crystal Meth Use?

Because crystal meth is a stimulant, the signs of crystal meth use may become apparent as immediately as the symptoms of its use are felt.

External Signs of Crystal Meth Use

If someone you know uses crystal meth, you may notice they:9

  • Eat and sleep less, which may lead to dramatic weight loss
  • Have significant amounts of physical energy
  • Become distrustful or even physically aggressive, including toward people they know well
  • Seem confused or forgetful
  • Seem detached from reality, which may include experiencing paranoid delusions or hallucinations

Symptoms of Crystal Meth Use

If you use crystal meth, you may notice that you experience or develop:9

  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • High body temperature
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to sleep
  • Disinterest in food
  • Brain fog, disorientation, and memory gaps
  • Persistent itchiness that may lead to scratching enough to leave wounds on your skin
  • Dry mouth, which may lead to progressively worsening dental problems
  • Paranoia, or perceiving threats to your wellbeing that are not supported by evidence
  • Hallucinations, or feeling, seeing, hearing, or even smelling sensations that others cannot

What Are the Risks of Crystal Meth Addiction?

Crystal meth addiction has medical and psychological risks, including the following.

Overdose

One of the major risks of crystal meth addiction is that of a possible overdose. From 2015 to 2019, the number of methamphetamine-related overdoses nearly tripled even though the number of people who reported using methamphetamine only increased 43% in that time period.10

Crystal meth overdose requires immediate medical intervention. Unlike opioid overdose, there is no at-home intervention that can stop or reverse the effects of the overdose, which often include loss of blood flow to the heart or brain that can cause serious organ damage. And unlike overdoses on central nervous system (CNS) depressants like opioids, sedatives, or alcohol, which are due to taking too much of the substance, a crystal meth overdose can occur with any dose. In this way, the term “overdose” may be misleading, as it really refers to the life-threatening effects associated with a stimulant overdose.

Cardiovascular Complications

As a stimulant, crystal meth may have a significant impact on cardiovascular health over time. Crystal meth can contribute to:9

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Mental Health Complications

Crystal meth affects both the chemical balance and the structure of the brain. Research links crystal meth addiction to:9

  • Changes in emotional regulation
  • Cognitive issues
  • Psychosis
  • Impaired verbal learning
  • Impaired coordination

How is Crystal Meth Addiction Treated?

Crystal meth addiction treatment programs are based primarily on behavioral therapy. Unlike some other substances, no medication-assisted therapy has been found yet that significantly assists with managing crystal meth withdrawal or maintaining abstinence from methamphetamine.

In crystal meth addiction treatment, you may participate in:9,11

  • The Matrix Model–The Matrix Model is a 16-week program that incorporates multiple evidence-based treatment types to create a comprehensive treatment plan. The Matrix Model includes 12-step groups, family therapy, and recovery activities. Research has linked use of the Matrix Model to a reduction in methamphetamine use.
  • Contingency management–Contingency management models use tangible incentives to encourage you to complete recovery-focused goals you set with the help of a counselor. Studies show that contingency management is an effective approach in stimulant use disorder treatment.
  • Motivational Incentives for Enhancing Drug Abuse Recovery (MIEDAR)–Motivational enhancement, like MIEDAR, is often used in methamphetamine treatment programs. MIEDAR has demonstrated efficacy in this demographic.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy–Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used in many addiction treatment programs and has some of the strongest evidence backing its effectiveness at helping individuals identify the thoughts and actions that lead to substance misuse.

Treatment Settings

The two main types of crystal meth addiction treatment settings include inpatient and outpatient.

Inpatient Crystal Meth Rehab

Inpatient rehab involves living at the facility for the duration of the treatment program, which may last anywhere from 30-90 days, and sometimes longer, if needed. Many people benefit from the structure and routine of an inpatient rehab, given that they are separated from their everyday using environment, enabling them to focus solely on their recovery.

Inpatient rehab may be particularly helpful if you have a severe crystal meth addiction, a polysubstance addiction, a co-occurring mental health disorder like depression, or don’t have a sober support system at home.

Inpatient crystal meth addiction treatment tends to be more expensive than outpatient, but many insurance providers and plans offer coverage. And if you don’t have insurance, rehab scholarships, which may provide partial or full payment, are available through individual facilities and non-profits.

Outpatient Crystal Meth Rehab

Outpatient rehab involves attending scheduled therapy and counseling sessions at a facility and returning home during non-treatment hours (typically in the evening). Outpatient can occur in various levels of intensity, including partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), which involve up to 30 hours per week of care, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), which involve between 9 and 20 hours per week, and standard outpatient, which involves just a few hours.

This option is more flexible than inpatient, given that you can continue working, attending school, or fulfilling other responsibilities at home while you recover from a crystal meth addiction. It tends to be more affordable than inpatient programs; however, exposure to external stressors and triggers, including people and places associated with crystal meth use, could contribute to the risk of a slip or relapse.

If you struggle with methamphetamine misuse or crystal meth addiction, help is available. Call 800-662-4357 to speak to a treatment support specialist about crystal meth addiction treatment options.

Resources

    1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). What is the scope of methamphetamine use in the United States?. Methamphetamine Research Report.
    2. Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Controlled Substance Schedules. U.S. Department of Justice Diversion Control Division.
    3. U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Meth Awareness. United States Department of Justice Archive.
    4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Methamphetamine.
    5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). What are the immediate (short-term) effects of methamphetamine misuse?. Methamphetamine Research Report.
    6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). How is methamphetamine different from other stimulants, such as cocaine?. Methamphetamine Research Report.
    7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (1997, April 01). Rate and Duration of Drug Activity Play Major Roles in Drug Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment. NIDANotes.
    8. American Psychological Association. (2013). Substance Use Disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition. American Psychological Association Publishing.
    9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, May 16). Methamphetamine DrugFacts.
    10. National Institutes of Health. (2021, September 22). Methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths nearly tripled between 2015 to 2019, NIH study finds.
    11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, April 13). What treatments are effective for people who misuse methamphetamine?. Methamphetamine Research Report.

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