What is meth addiction?

Meth causes a huge release of dopamine. These unnaturally high levels of dopamine contribute to the addictive nature of the drug. Meth users report a huge surge of pleasure upon first taking the drug, followed by a sustained feeling of euphoria. Eventually, continued meth use destroys dopamine receptors and leaves users unable to experience pleasure.

Meth is a slang term for Methamphetamine, which is a highly addictive stimulant. The specific arrangement of chemicals that form methamphetamine is not found in nature; therefore, all methamphetamine is synthesized in labs.

On the streets, methamphetamine is known by several names, including the following.


What does meth addiction look like?

The signs of methamphetamine abuse can appear quickly once a person starts using. The most identifiable signs of meth abuse include a gaunt or frail appearance, open sores on the skin, and a condition known as, “meth mouth.”

Meth gives users an initial burst of energy and suppresses their appetite. This causes them to lose weight quickly but in an unhealthy manner that leaves them malnourished and frail.

The sores occur due to a combination of two side effects of methamphetamine use. First, meth abusers often feel as if they have bugs crawling under their skin. This condition, called formication, causes users to scratch and pick at their skin, often until it bleeds. Exacerbating this disorder, methamphetamine also constricts blood vessels. The constricted blood vessels prevent sufficient blood flow from reaching tissues and organs. That lack of blood flow weakens tissues and organs, including the skin, and slows the healing process. So, when a user picks at their skin, it breaks easily and heals slowly.

Meth addicts usually end up with missing, rotting, and/or broken teeth. This condition is called, “meth mouth.” The complete cause of the condition is not fully understood, but we know it involves several factors. Meth dries out the salivary glands. With less saliva, the acids present in the mouth begin to eat away at tooth enamel. (Some reports suggest the chemicals in the meth, like anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorus, and lithium also contribute to the tooth decay.) Additionally, the energy burst meth users get often causes them to grind their teeth, sometimes to the point that the teeth break, especially when already weakened from decay. Finally, the constriction of the blood vessels mentioned earlier also leaves the tissue of the gums weak. This makes the teeth more likely to loosen or fall out, especially with excessive grinding.

To see images of just how devastating these effects can be and how quickly they can occur, check out this slide show from

Health Problems Associated with Meth Addiction


The Meth Project Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsored a study done by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. The study, published in 2009, examined the economic impact of methamphetamine on the U.S. in 2005. The study found methamphetamine contributed to 900 deaths in America in that year.

Additional studies showed the fatality rate among users actually dropped in the following years, before climbing again in 2009.

How does meth affect the brain?

Methamphetamine causes changes in the brain that create a heavy dependence on the drug. The changes can be devastating long term.

Meth has an enormous effect on the brain’s dopamine levels. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. Meth causes the dopamine levels in the brain to skyrocket up to 1250 units. That’s over 12 times what you get from alcohol and over six times the amount you get from an orgasm. That extreme high is what gets people hooked. It may even sound enticing, but our brains cannot handle that much dopamine. Too much dopamine can lead to psychotic episodes or schizophrenia.

Over time, meth destroys the dopamine receptors and eventually a chronic meth user will no longer experience pleasure. Although the dopamine receptors will slowly grow back if meth usage is stopped, they take months and possibly years to do so. During all that time, in addition to the constant cravings for the drug, a recovering meth user will be battling the depression that comes from not being able to experience pleasure.

Methamphetamine also reduces activity in the judgment and reasoning center of the brain. This means a meth user or former user, is less likely to make wise decisions. Research suggests this damage may be permanent.

Addition negative effects meth has on the brain and behavior include the following.


How does meth affect the body?

Meth wreaks havoc on the body. As discussed higher on this page, meth abuse leads to rotten and broken teeth, a frail and weak body, and pale skin covered in open sores. The damaging effects methamphetamine has on the body don’t end there. Meth can also cause the conditions listed below.


Financial Costs of Meth Addiction


According to the RAND study mentioned above, methamphetamine costs the U.S. an estimated $23 billion. That total encompasses several factors, including the cost of treatment, healthcare, lost productivity and others. The study indicates a wide margin of error in this estimation and the true cost could be as high as $48.3 billion.

That estimate includes approximately $4.2 billion in criminal justice costs a large part of which is shouldered by taxpayers.

Another study, commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, found that in 2010, Americans spend approximately $13 billion dollars buying methamphetamines. The study also estimated about 1.6 million people in America were chronic meth users.

The National Drug Control Policy study also revealed insights into how much money a meth addiction can cost you. According to the study, on average, meth users spent an estimated $655 per month supplying their habit. For meth users with high usage rates (using 21 or more days in a month), the average estimated cost was as high as $1,256 per month. Over the course of the year, that’s over $15,000.

That’s $15,000 just for the drug alone. It doesn’t include any potential associated costs for problems caused by the use like hospital bills or legal fees.

Clearly, even if methamphetamine abuse doesn’t kill you, it can cost you.

Social Problems Associated with Meth Addiction

Meth abuse causes an increase in various types of crimes as well as household problems that jeopardize the welfare of children.

In addition to the crimes directly associated with the drug, like possession of a controlled substance and/or trafficking, communities with high rates of meth use also see high rates of theft. That association makes sense, as meth users resort to theft in order to finance their habit. Specifically, meth addiction can lead to increased car theft and identity theft.

Meth abuse can cause devastating family problems. Local officials interviewed as part of the PBS report referenced above found meth use leads to more cases of child neglect, endangerment, and abuse.

As with the increase in theft, these domestic problems make logical sense when you understand the effects of methamphetamine. People high on meth may leave their children alone for days at a time. Parents using meth often physically or sexually abuse their children. Parents who cook meth, especially in the home, expose their children to highly combustible and highly toxic chemicals.

When you consider all of the health, financial, and social implications, you see just how dangerous and costly methamphetamine abuse can be.

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