How to Tell If Someone Is on Meth

By May Wilkerson 09/02/15
If you're wondering how to tell if someone is on meth and what you can do to help, this resource is for you.
Crystal Methamphetamine, how to tell if someone is on  meth

If you watched Breaking Bad you already know a thing or two about Methamphetamine, more commonly known as “meth.” The highly-addictive stimulant comes in two forms: “Crystal Meth” the purer form, often dubbed “ice” or “crystal,” and the somewhat less potent white powder known as “speed” or "crank." Both forms of the stimulant produce a powerful rush of energy and euphoria that can last for four to eight hours, or longer. Because of its wide availability, ease of use and the ability to make it out of household products, meth has been called “the most dangerous drug in the world.”

Meth addiction is considered difficult to kick. But recovery is possible, especially with the help of professionals and the support of friends and family.

If you’re worried that a loved one may be using meth, here are some signs and symptoms you can watch out for and some actions you can take to help.


Drug Paraphernalia

Bags of White Powder or Crystals: Meth can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked, and the drug may take different forms. It is usually either a white to light brown crystallized powder, or transparent chunky crystals that resemble splintered ice or shards of glass (lending it the street name “ice”). It may also be an odorless yellowish liquid, created by melting down meth rocks and mixing with water.

Crumpled Aluminum Foil or Soda Cans: Small pieces of aluminum foil (may be creased down the middle) or soda cans with a hole in the side may be used to smoke the drug. Signs of meth use could include crumpled aluminum foil with burn marks that may be accompanied by straws or hollowed out ballpoint pens used to snort or smoke the drug.

Glass Pipes: Glass pipes or tubes may also be used to smoke meth. Used glass tubes will have burn residue on one end. Some meth users will also use the shell of a lightbulb, which would have a chipped or melted hole on top.

Syringes: Though somewhat less common, meth addicts may inject the drug to maximize its effects. Syringes may be a sign of heavier meth use. In this case, also look for spoons (with burn marks) used to melt the drug in water prior to injection, and small pieces of cotton or cigarette filters used to filter the solution.

Torch Lighters: Because they are stronger than traditional lighters or matches, these are a popular heating source for smoking or injecting meth.


Signs of Meth Being “Cooked” at Home

Compared to other drugs, meth is relatively easy to manufacture or “cook” at home using a variety of household products. Most methamphetamine is made with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, chemicals found in over-the-counter decongestants like Sudafed. Garbage containing numerous empty bottles of cough syrup or blister packs could be a sign of meth being cooked at home, as well as signs of burning or explosion, and strong chemical odors.

Meth production used to take place largely in secluded, rural areas. But people are increasingly using the “shake-and-bake” method, which involves a plastic bottle, pseudoephedrine, and poisonous chemicals (like battery acid or drain cleaners).


Signs or Symptoms of Meth Use

Physical Indicators: Meth causes hyperactivity and suppresses appetite, so users may lose a significant amounts of weight in a short period of time and appear gaunt and undernourished. Users may also have dilated pupils, bloodshot eyes, or uncontrolled twitching in the face or body. Smoking or cooking the drug can lead to burn marks on the arms or hands.

Prolonged use can lead to hair loss, dark undereye circles, or skin sores or lesions from picking at skin. Those who snort the drug may experience chronic nasal problems, like a collapsed nasal cavity or nosebleeds. A physical trait commonly associated with chronic meth use is rotting or missing teeth, a condition known as “meth mouth” caused by chemicals in the drug eroding tooth enamel. Meth addicts may also neglect hygiene and could appear unkempt or unclean.

Changes in Behavior: Users often feel extremely energetic and may go long periods, up to several days, without sleep. Other psychological symptoms of meth use can include nervousness, repetitive behaviors, disorganized thoughts, hallucination, paranoia and psychotic behavior. Heavy users may experience the sensation of bugs crawling underneath the skin, known as “meth bugs,” causing them to scratch or pick at their skin.

Users may also get easily overheated and can appear sweaty or out of breath, as if they’ve been exercising. The drug can also boost sex drive and lead to impulsive or risky sexual behavior. HIV infections are much more common among meth users, due to higher rates of unsafe sex and sharing needles.


Acute Side Effects and Overdose

Methamphetamine overdose occurs when side effects become dangerous and life-threatening. Side effects that may indicate overdose include agitation, chest pain, heart attack, difficulty breathing, paranoia, seizures, severe stomach pain, stroke. In extreme cases, meth may cause the heart to stop, kidney failure, or coma. If you suspect someone is suffering from methamphetamine side effects, get immediate medical help. Exercise caution, as the person may be paranoid and unpredictable.



A period of heavy meth use is usually followed by a crash in which a person becomes very lethargic or sleepy to compensate for energy expended during the binge. They may sleep for long periods and experience extreme cravings, which can lead to another binge.

Meth withdrawal is unpleasant but not as dangerous as withdrawing from some other drugs, like benzodiazepines or alcohol. Still, an addict should ideally withdraw under the supervision of a clinic or detox. Symptoms of withdrawal may include fatigue, depression, teeth grinding, night sweats, emotional volatility, weight gain, drug cravings, anxiety and suicidal ideation.


Long Term Behavioral Changes

Over the long-term, meth addicts may socially isolate themselves, steal to support their habit, neglect responsibilities, such as work, family and bills, and their lives can fall into disarray.

Over time, heavy use of the drug can also damage the brain, leading to long-term changes in behavior that may become permanent if the drug’s use continues. One study from 2014 found that brain damage caused by chronic meth use can create symptoms similar to schizophrenia.

Chronic users who quit may experience lasting depression, due to the drug's mechanism of increasing the concentration of dopamine in the brain. A large fear for long-term users in recovery is anhedonia, the clinical term for a permanent inability to experience pleasure.

“Crystal meth forces dopamine and norepinephrine to be blasted through the brain, so when you stop using meth, there’s a definite effect on your brain, which creates the anhedonia,” said Dr. James A. Peck, a clinical psychologist who specializes in addiction. “The jury is still out as to whether it is permanent.”


Legal Risks

In addition to health risks, meth use carries significant legal risks. In the US, methamphetamine is considered a Schedule II drug, putting it in the most restricted category for prescription drugs. Production, sale, and transport of methamphetamine is prohibited by law. Possession is also illegal unless prescribed by a doctor as a stimulant, which is increasingly uncommon due to high rates of abuse.

Some states have placed additional restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter products containing the chemicals used to make meth, like pseudoephedrine.


How to Support a Meth Addict Who Needs Help

  1. Get Informed. In general, an addict needs to be ready to get help. But interventions can be useful, especially since recovery rates are higher the sooner meth addiction is addressed. Start by researching meth addiction—the more you know, the more you can help. Resources like SAMHSA offer in-depth information on meth addiction and recovery. And this map can help you find local meth treatment centers across the country.
  2. Intervene. A structured intervention can provide a crystal meth user with the push they needs toward abstinence. Interventions are usually pre-planned events involving friends and family, who will respectfully confront the addict about their worries and objective observations about his or her behavior. It is best to remind your loved one that you care about them and try to avoid attacking them or lashing out. Statements of your feelings are generally more effective than ultimatums or commands.
  3. Help them begin treatment. Treatment begins with detox. You can accompany them to a detox clinic or contact a physician to get a medication, such as Varenicline, prescribed for meth withdrawal.
  4. Ongoing support. Throughout your loved one’s early recovery, try to be patient and empathetic as they go through erratic mood changes and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Make yourself available to your loved one if and when they need you, call and check in on them, and join them in activities they might enjoy as a distraction from the urge to use. Rates of relapse are high among meth addicts, and a secure support system is crucial.



Relapse rates for meth addicts are high, but recovery is possible. Treatment involves detox followed by behavioral and psychological treatment. An addict will need medical supervision in early recovery, to treat the physical side effects of chronic meth use as well as withdrawal. So far, there are no FDA approved medications specifically for treating crystal meth addiction, but studies have found that 12-step recovery groups, individual and group therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have all been effective in helping meth addicts maintain long-term abstinence.

Research shows that crystal meth addicts in self-help programs, like Crystal Meth Anonymous, had lower relapse rates than those who did not. These programs rely on the support of other recovering crystal meth addicts. But an addict’s family and friends can also play a huge role in boosting their chances of staying abstinent.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix