Dangers and Signs of Crystal Meth Use

Use linked to high rates of HIV and hepatitis C

Close-Up Of Methamphetamine In Plastic Bag
Daniel Kaesler / EyeEm / Getty Images

Methamphetamine (commonly referred to as meth) is a type of amphetamine stimulant and has its roots in some very unexpected places. Military pilots are known to have used amphetamines at wartime to stay awake during their long-distant flights to bombing targets. Later, long-haul truckers often turned to the drug to allow them to make non-stop coast to coast journeys.

By the 1960s, the social counter-culture revolution fueled the use of amphetamines as a recreational drug. Tightening drug laws in the 1970s made access more difficult, and for a while, it seemed as if the amphetamine had all but disappeared.

In the late 1980s, the illicit use of amphetamines returned, primarily in the form of the supercharged version called methamphetamine. Manufactured in makeshift "meth labs," users both young and old, urban and rural, began latching onto a drug that was relatively cheap and gave an immediate, long-lasting high.

According to 2015 data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than six percent of adults over the age of 26 have used crystal meth at least once in a lifetime, placing it well ahead of heroin (2.1 percent) and crack cocaine (4.1 percent).

What Is Crystal Meth?

Crystal meth is the synthetic white crystalline form of methamphetamine. While the legal form of methamphetamine is used primarily as a treatment for ADHD or sometimes for obesity, crystal meth is used as a party drug because of its ability to enhance the senses, increase sexual arousal, and cause a longer-lasting euphoric high than most other street drugs.

When used (either by smoking, injecting or snorting), people can go for days without sleep and often engage in high-risk sex due to the sexual disinhibition the drug can create. While the legal form of the drug is odorless, crystal meth can smell slightly of ammonia as a result of the chemicals used for manufacture.

How It's Made

Crystal meth is "cooked" in illegal labs using household chemicals and solvents readily purchased in grocery and hardware stores, as well as over-the-counter drugs such as pseudoephedrine. The chemicals and processes used to create crystal meth are highly volatile, with lay manufacturers often at risk of explosion and injury when cooking.


Crystal meth is highly addictive, with most people experiencing a waning of effects over time. As a result, drug dose and frequency are usually increased the more a person uses, not only to achieve the desired high but to prevent the emotional lows that can follow once the drug is stopped.

In low doses, crystal meth heightens the senses and makes the users more alert. In higher doses, the drug causes exhilaration and euphoria. At this level, a person's heart rate will increase and the body temperature can rise to unhealthy, potentially deadly levels. Over time, the user can become paranoid, agitated and exhibit bizarre and risky behavior.

Crystal meth is an extremely addictive drug. While those who smoke or snort the drug may take longer to become addicted, many do turn to injecting (also known as "slamming"). Lowered inhibitions often lead to needle sharing, which further increases the risk of disease transmission, including HIV and hepatitis C.

Consequences of Long-Term Use

Crystal meth stimulates dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) involved in motivation, reinforcement, and attention, as well as other functions. However, overuse eventually "burns out" the body's ability to produce dopamine and, rather than a sustained high, the user will experience ever-increasing cycles of numbness and depression as the effects of the drugs wear off. By this time, common signs of this addiction may become apparent, including:

  • The crystal "stink breath" and body odor
  • The uncontrolled facial tics or repetitive grinding of the teeth
  • Marked weight loss and facial wasting can often be seen in frequent users
  • Severe heart damage is also very common because of the stress crystal meth puts on the cardiovascular system.
  • Shared needle use frequently results in a staphylococcal (staph) infections that can require urgent medical attention.

What Can Be Done?

Steps are being taken to address the crystal meth problem, with increased public health campaigns centered around high-risk HIV communities (e.g. youth, men who have sex with men). Some states have limited the purchase of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine.

Other groups are turning to online prevention, centered around many gay "hook up" sites where crystal meth use is subversively advertised among users—using terms such as PNP ("party and play"), "tweaking" (being high), "on point" (injecting), and "chem sex" (sex with drugs).

Despite this, crystal meth use is still unnecessarily high with intervention often taking place only after an HIV or hepatitis C infection has occurred. Greater effort must be taken to address crystal meth use in younger people, highlighting the risk of both usage and disease acquisition, while support groups and substance abuse treatment outreach are needed for those who are fighting addiction.

To find a treatment or prevention resource nearest you, contact your regional 24-hour AIDS hotline or your nearest community health center.

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Article Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Methamphetamine Use and Risk for HIV/AIDS. Atlanta, Georgia; published January 2007.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. National Survey of Drug Use and Health. Bethesda, Maryland; July 2015.