Amphetamine abuse, addiction, and overdose are an increasing problem in the United States. While the opioid epidemic generates the most press, amphetamine overdose rates and deaths have been increasing. In 2017, the deaths from amphetamine overdose (more than 7,500) rose by 30 percent from the previous year. Amphetamines are highly addictive drugs classed as stimulants. Prescription amphetamines are typically used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy but are carefully monitored because of their risk for addiction development. Illicit amphetamines are used recreationally for the euphoric high they produce as well as the increased alertness and energy they cause. A person addicted to amphetamines is unlikely to manage the condition without high-quality treatment.
What Is Amphetamine Addiction and How Does It Develop?
Substance addiction is a complex disease that is chronic and frequently progressive in nature without treatment. A person can be diagnosed with amphetamine addiction if they have developed both a physical and psychological dependency on the drug. Being dependent one way or another is still serious and may require treatment, but substance addiction involves more than just the physical dependency. It can also entail mental and behavioral dependencies on the drug in question.
People who abuse amphetamines or take prescribed amphetamines for a long period of time are at increased risk for developing an addiction. A person who develops a tolerance to their current dose of amphetamine and must increase that dose to get the same effects as before can be said to be developing a dependency on the drug. Establishing a pattern of tolerance and dose increase often paves the path to full-blown physical dependency and, often, addiction. Physical dependency is not the same as addiction if the psychological dependency is not present.
A person can also quite easily develop a psychological dependency on the drug. In the case of amphetamines, a person might feel they “need” the drug to perform better at work or school. These drugs are known to increase alertness and energy. When a person feels a compulsion to use amphetamines and mentally relies on them on a regular basis, they may have developed a psychological dependency on them. Amphetamine abuse typically precedes amphetamine addiction, but the time it takes for addiction to develop varies from person to person, the amount of the drug they abuse, and the manner in which they abuse it.
When Does Amphetamine Use Become an Addiction?
A person may not be aware that they have developed an addiction. Often, people who are addicted believe they have control over their drug use. Regardless of their own thoughts on their drug use, though, they can be diagnosed as “addicted” if they have developed both physical and psychological dependencies on the drug. A surefire way to diagnose the physical dependency is the presence of withdrawal symptoms if the amphetamine is not taken within a certain period of time. It may be harder to establish the mental dependency, but often, people addicted to powerful amphetamines will repeatedly try to quit but fail. They may feel preoccupied throughout the day with using the drug or obtaining a supply of the drug.
When a full-blown addiction sets in, it can be recognized by many of these signs and symptoms:
- Mood swings
- Increased periods of alertness
- Depression and anxiety
- Decreased sex drive
- Reduced appetite
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased heart rate
- Blurred vision
- Irregular heartbeat
In general, people addicted to drugs like amphetamines may doctor shop in order to increase their supply of the drug. They may turn to street amphetamines for recreational use or when they can’t obtain the drug through a physician. People who abuse or become addicted to amphetamines may experience reduced performance at school or work. They may engage in risk-taking behaviors when under the influence of the drug like needle sharing or unprotected sex.
Chronic amphetamine users can develop a tolerance to the drug. Tolerance occurs when a drug is repeatedly administered at certain dose levels and its effects (at those same dose levels) start to wear off over time. In some instances, tolerance to meth or another amphetamine can lead a user to take more and more of the drug in order to achieve the same desired effects. When this pattern of behavior begins, the user is especially prone to addiction.
Strikingly, though, in the case of amphetamines, tolerance is selective with respect to which effects of the drug will wear off over time. Researchers have used the term “reverse tolerance” to describe another phenomenon that can occur in chronic amphetamine users— namely, the fact that the more you use amphetamines, the more vulnerable you become to amphetamine-induced psychosis. For whatever reason, someone who has been religiously taking amphetamines is much more likely than a first-time user to become psychotic from the drug. In this sense, tolerance (needing more of the drug to achieve its desired effects) and reverse tolerance (increased sensitivity to amphetamine-induced psychosis) can occur at the same time in some serious amphetamine users.
What Is the Amphetamine High That Users Are Chasing?
First, a person doesn’t have to experience a “high” in the general euphoric sense to become addicted to it. Some people may rely on the drug to increase their alertness. A person with a high-stress job, for instance, might turn to stimulants to help them perform at work when they’re tired. They may not take a dose that leads to euphoria but, rather, to increased alertness and reduced fatigue. They can still become tolerant of the low dose and will need to increase it in time to achieve the same result.
People who use amphetamines recreationally do often take larger doses of the drug to experience its euphoric effects. Users have compared the high to a cocaine high. Users may feel elated, more self-confident, and happier. A larger dose, however, comes with an increased risk for overdose and amphetamine poisoning.
Long-Term Health Effects of Amphetamine Addiction
Both using and abusing amphetamines can change the chemistry of the brain. A person who becomes addicted to amphetamines, like other addictive substances, can experience temporary or permanent changes in their brain. These changes can include the development of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and psychosis. Some people who have acute psychological symptoms are often likened to schizophrenia sufferers.
Amphetamine addiction can have serious short-term and long-term effects on physical health too. Amphetamine abuse/ addiction can cause heart irregularities that may or may not be corrected. For instance, if a person experiences a heart attack owing to their amphetamine addiction, the damage will likely be permanent. Common health conditions associated with amphetamine addiction include high blood pressure, heart irregularities, erectile dysfunction, skin disorders, muscle tension, tics, chest pain, frequent headaches, increased breathing rate, and malnutrition.
What Happens When Someone Quits Cold Turkey?
A person experiencing amphetamine salts addiction, meth addiction, or even prescription amphetamine addiction is not advised to quit cold turkey—and certainly shouldn’t attempt detox at home. Withdrawal symptoms can be serious and even cause life-threatening emergencies that include heart attack, seizures, and thoughts of suicide.
Common withdrawal symptoms include headache, insomnia, intense cravings for the drug, nausea, vomiting, tremors, chills, shakiness, and depression/anxiety. Rather than endure these symptoms alone when they could lead to health complications, it’s safest to opt for medical detox. During the medical detox process, medical caregivers can treat these symptoms to reduce their severity and decrease the risk for serious health complications.
Why Does Amphetamine Addiction Need Treatment?
The relapse rate for people addicted to methamphetamines—even after treatment—is over 90 percent. Even with the best intentions, many—most—people cannot manage their addiction to amphetamines without professional addiction treatment. Moreover, this treatment must target all aspects of the disease— not just the physical dependency. Detox is not enough because it only involves the physical aspects of the addiction. The psychological and behavioral aspects of amphetamine addiction can be just as powerful.
The key to successfully managing amphetamine addiction is to obtain integrated, multi-dimensional treatment that addresses the physical and psychological aspects of the disease. Remember, substance addiction alters the chemical makeup of the brain. Overcoming the disease is therefore not purely a matter of choice. Compulsions to use the drug are powerful. However, addiction specialists help people manage those compulsions and triggers using various strategies. Through counseling, inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, and aftercare services, people addicted to amphetamines can achieve long-term recovery.