Tox Tuesday: Meth

Despite its devastating effects, methamphetamine continues to be a serious problem in the U.S. and abroad.

Methamphetamine, more commonly known as meth, comes in a myriad of forms with numerous ways to abuse the drug. Traditional meth typically is in pill or powder form, while crystal meth looks like glass or bluish-white rocks. It can be smoked, snorted, swallowed or injected, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The method of taking meth can affect the high it produces; for example, smoking or injecting it causes a shorter intense rush while swallowing or snorting it creates a longer-lasting high. However, both are tied to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Dopamine also is involved with reward, which is linked to addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Effects of the drug may disappear before meth actually is out of a person’s system, leading users to take more of the drug. This is called a “run” and often involves the user abstaining from sleep and food while continuing to take more of the drug.

Meth can cause increased heart rate and irregular heartbeat, rapid breathing, reduced appetite, increased activity and overheating. It’s the last symptom that can be particularly dangerous – too high of a body temperature can lead to convulsions, cardiovascular issues and even death. Likewise, chronic use can lead to confusion, insomnia, paranoia, aggression, hallucinations, violent behavior and the feeling of insects on or under the skin (this often leads to picking of the skin and subsequently, sores).

Meth abuse also produces an unmistakable characteristic of its use, commonly called meth mouth, which is characterized by severe dental problems including rotting teeth.

About 1.2 million people in the U.S. used methamphetamine in the previous year, and 440,000 said they had used the drug in the past month, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Abuse. However, the number of people who had used meth in the past month has dropped since 2006, when it stood at about 731,000. In 2011, meth ranked fourth in illicit drugs linked to emergency room visits with 103,000 visits, down from 132,576 visits in 2004, NIDA reports.

Globally, meth also is a large concern in East and Southeast Asia, where it is considered to be the “greatest drug challenge in the region”, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Methamphetamine is the most widely used ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants) drug in the region because it remains the easiest to produce and the precursor chemicals are widely available,” said Beate Hammond, UNODC Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends (SMART) program manager, at a 2012 workshop.

Meth also poses health risks to those who manufacture it (or those who live near a meth lab unknowingly). Meth is a mix of common, yet dangerous, chemicals including lithium, ether, red phosphorus (think matches), and fertilizer. The contamination issue is so bad, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has specific guidelines on how to cleanup meth labs, according to NIDA.

The manufacture of meth also involves pseudophredrine, a component of several over-the-counter cold medications. However, the 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act now requires stores and pharmacies to keep a log of people who purchase these medications as well as keeping them stored safely and limiting how much a person can buy in a day.

Methamphetamine is a Schedule II drug in the U.S., which means it has a high risk for abuse and limited medical use.

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