Amphetamines vs. Methamphetamine: What Is the Difference?
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Amphetamines and methamphetamine are stimulant drugs that are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as Schedule II Controlled substances due to their high potential for abuse and drug dependence. The main difference between amphetamines and methamphetamine are their indications for use.
Amphetamines are typically prescribed to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or narcolepsy, while methamphetamine is most often found as an illegal street drug made in an illicit laboratory.
Meth and amphetamines alike are highly addictive with a host of dangerous side effects. Amphetamines should only be taken as directed by a medical professional, while meth should be avoided completely.
What Is an Amphetamine?
Amphetamines are central nervous system stimulant medications that increase the amount of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that are present in the brain. This can serve to increase energy, wakefulness, focus, alertness, and concentration while depressing appetite.
These medications are prescribed to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, and sometimes obesity.
Common prescription forms of amphetamines include the following:
- Adderall (dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination)
- Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
- Ritalin/Concerta (methylphenidate)
Amphetamines can be abused and used recreationally to cause a euphoric “high” or as a “study drug” to help students stay awake and focused longer. Abuse and regular use of amphetamine can lead to physical and psychological dependence and addiction.
What Is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a dangerous drug that quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier to cause an intense rush of euphoria. Methamphetamine, or meth, is chemically similar to amphetamine. In rare cases, it is prescribed to treat ADHD as the brand name Desoxyn.
Most of the time, however, meth is made in illegal laboratories and used as a street drug. Meth is available in pill, powder, and rock (crystal meth) form. It is typically smoked, injected, or snorted.
Meth is extremely addictive and increases the amount of dopamine in the brain while acting as a central nervous system stimulant. In 2020, 2.5 million people in the United States abused methamphetamine, and 1.5 million people had a methamphetamine use disorder.
The Differences Between Meth & Amphetamine
Methamphetamine and amphetamine are both central nervous system stimulant drugs that can cause physical and psychological dependence, and both are highly addictive. But they are very different drugs.
- Potency: Methamphetamine is often considered to be more potent and act more quickly on the brain than amphetamine taken at similar doses.
- Method of use: Meth is more commonly abused and taken via injection, smoking, or snorting, while amphetamines are generally taken orally. This method of use can influence how fast the drug crosses the blood-brain barrier and becomes active in the bloodstream.
- Legitimate use vs. abuse: Amphetamines are typically prescription medications that are made by pharmaceutical companies and prescribed by a health care professional to treat ADHD. On the other hand, methamphetamine is more commonly made illicitly and sold on the street as a recreational drug of abuse.
Medication vs. Illegal or Street Use
Amphetamines are most often prescription medications, including Ritalin and Adderall. They are designed to be taken orally as a tablet or capsule to help manage symptoms of ADHD or narcolepsy.
They are still commonly abused, however. Any time a prescription medication is used without medical need or without direction of a medical professional, it is considered abuse.
Amphetamine can be abused and used illegally for a variety of reasons, including as a party drug, study drug, or appetite suppressant. More than 5 million people misused a prescription stimulant in 2020.
Methamphetamine is almost always used illegally as a street drug, either as crystal meth or in powder form. Meth is made in illegal meth labs, so there is no regulation on how it is manufactured and what additives or substances might be used to “cut” or adulterate it. This makes meth highly dangerous with an increased risk for overdose or an adverse reaction.
Side Effects of Methamphetamine & Amphetamine
Since both methamphetamine and amphetamine medications are central nervous system stimulants, they can have similar potential side effects, ranging from a life-threatening overdose to drug dependence to addiction.
Additional side effects of these drugs can include short-term health effects, such as these:
- Increased alertness, energy levels, and wakefulness
- Elevated breathing rate
- Rapid heart rate
- Decreased appetite
- Higher blood pressure and body temperature
Long-term side effects can include the following:
- Weight loss
- Dental issues (“meth mouth”)
- Sores from scratching and skin issues
- Memory loss
- Violent behaviors
- Trouble sleeping
- Contraction of an infectious disease through needle sharing
- Collapsed veins and infections from injecting the drug
- Nosebleeds and sinus issues from snorting the drug
- Respiratory problems from smoking the drug
Amphetamine medications should not be used with MAO inhibitors, as this can cause a potentially fatal drug interaction. Other drugs that raise your blood pressure and heart rate can be dangerous to take when taking amphetamines. The same is true for medications that reduce stomach acids.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about any medications or supplements you take before starting an amphetamine medication.
Methamphetamine and amphetamine both increase serotonin levels in the brain. Taking either of these with other medications that also perform this action, such as an antidepressant or ecstasy (MDMA), can cause the potentially fatal serotonin syndrome.
Since meth is generally sold on the streets, you have no idea what might already be mixed with it. As a result, combining any other mind-altering substance with meth can be extremely dangerous. Using a depressant with meth, such as an opioid, alcohol, or a benzodiazepine can mask the effects of each drug, increasing the risk for overdose and the potential rate of addiction.
Except in rare cases, methamphetamine is considered an illegal and dangerous drug with no benefits.
Amphetamines can have medical implications. They are used to help alter brain chemistry and the movement of important neurotransmitters to help manage the symptoms of ADHD most commonly.
Amphetamines can have the following benefits:
- Increased alertness, wakefulness, and energy levels
- Better focus and concentration
- Mood regulation
- Suppressed appetite
List of Controlled Substances. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts. (June 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Methamphetamine DrugFacts. (May 2019). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (October 2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Patterns and Characteristics of Methamphetamine Use Among Adults — United States, 2015–2018. (March 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Effects of Amphetamine and Methamphetamine on the Release of Norepinephrine, Dopamine and Acetylcholine From the Brainstem Reticular Formation. (May 2019). Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.
Amphetamine, Past and Present – A Pharmacological and Clinical Perspective. (June 2013). Journal of Psychopharmacology.
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