.As their names suggest, amphetamines and methamphetamine are similar substances, but they’re not identical. Primary differences between amphetamines and methamphetamines include their legal status, potential positive and negative effects, and the ways people most often use and misuse them.
First, let’s define exactly what they are.
What Are Amphetamines?
An amphetamine is a stimulant. Scientists call the group of drugs that have similar chemical structures and elicit similar effects amphetamines. This category includes amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, dexmethylphenidate, and lisdexamfetamine. The broad amphetamine category also includes methamphetamine, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in the next section.
When a person takes an amphetamine, the drug increases the speed with which the central nervous system transmits messages from the brain to the body. The immediate effects of amphetamine use typically include increased energy, improved reaction time, and heightened ability to focus and concentrate. These effects lead to nicknames such as speed, uppers, and pep pills.
Some amphetamines are approved for use in the United States to treat certain health conditions. The most common uses of prescription amphetamines include treating people who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Doctors may also prescribe amphetamines in medically supervised obesity treatment programs.
Here are a few common prescription medications that contain amphetamines. We list the brand names first, followed by the amphetamines or amphetamine derivatives they contain.
Common Amphetamine-Based Medications
- Adderall (racemic amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)
- Ritalin (methylphenidate)
- Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
- Focalin (dexmethylphenidate)
- Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine)
Legal, prescription amphetamines are typically sold as tablets or capsules designed to be taken by mouth with water. Illicitly produced amphetamines often appear in pill or powder form. These drugs are most often smoked, inhaled, injected, or swallowed.
Although many amphetamines have legitimate medical uses, this doesn’t mean they’re completely safe. Depending on which prescription amphetamine a person takes, they may experience side effects such as anxiety, nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, headaches, lightheadedness, restlessness, and loss of appetite.
Those negative side effects are common. Prescription amphetamines also pose a risk of misuse escalating to disordered use.
In some cases, people prescribed a medication that with amphetamine self-medicate by using the drug more frequently or in larger doses than directed. In other cases, people use illicitly acquired prescription amphetamines as a study aid in the hope that the drugs will temporarily improve their ability to stay awake, focus, and retain and recall the information they are studying. Still others misuse prescription amphetamines solely for recreational purposes.
Regardless of why a person begins to misuse amphetamines, when misuse leads to disordered use – called amphetamine use disorder or methamphetamine use disorder – problems can follow. The potential negative outcomes of amphetamine use disorder include:
- Severe headaches
- Blurred vision
- Elevated or otherwise irregular heart rate
- Dangerously high body temperature and blood pressure
- Heart failure or heart attack
- Liver damage
- Outbursts of anger, aggression, or hostility
Chronic amphetamine use can be devastating, but it is a treatable condition. When someone gets professional care from a reputable provider, they can address their amphetamine use disorder and build a foundation for a future in recovery.
What Is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is an extremely powerful and highly addictive type of amphetamine.
This drug, which is commonly referred to as meth, ice, crank, or crystal meth, usually appears as small crystalline rocks. Methamphetamine is typically smoked, but it can also be inhaled, swallowed, and injected.
Unlike amphetamines, methamphetamine has virtually no recognized medical value. In the United States, there is one prescription medication that contains methamphetamine. Marketed under the brand name Desoxyn, this drug is sometimes used to treat ADHD and obesity. Given the significant risks associated with Desoxyn, its use is extremely limited.
Potential physical and psychological effects of methamphetamine misuse include:
- Extreme damage to the teeth and gums
- Compulsive picking at the skin, which can lead to chronic scabs and sores
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Heart damage, which can lead to heart failure and heart attack
- Lung problems such as pneumonia, pulmonary edema, and pulmonary hypertension
- Increased risk for Parkinson’s disease
- Changes in brain structure and function
- Cognitive deficits
- Memory loss
- Visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations
- Dissociation (feeling detached from one’s thoughts, feelings, and surroundings)
- Suicidal ideation
It is no exaggeration to note that meth abuse and addiction can be devastating. For example, experts estimate that methamphetamine overdoses may have been responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in 2020 alone.
Key Differences Between Amphetamines & Methamphetamine
As we mention above, amphetamines and methamphetamine are both powerful and dangerous stimulants – but there are several important distinctions between the two.
Here is a quick summary of some key differences between amphetamines and methamphetamine:
- Amphetamines: The first amphetamine, phenylisopropylamine, was synthesized in 1887 by Lazăr Edeleanu, a Romanian scientist who was working in Germany.
- Methamphetamine: Nagai Nagayoshi, a Japanese scientist, was the first person to synthesize methamphetamine. This occurred in 1883. In 1919, another Japanese scientist, Akira Ogata, developed the crystalized form of meth that is most common today.
- Amphetamines: Millions of children, adolescents, and adults take prescription medications that contain amphetamines.
- Methamphetamine: Only one approved medication contains methamphetamine, and it’s a closely monitored drug that is prescribed sparingly.
- Amphetamines: They’re legal to purchase, possess, and use many amphetamines with a prescription.
- Methamphetamine: With the exception of prescription Desoxyn, the sale, possession, and use of methamphetamine is illegal throughout the United States.
- Amphetamines: Amphetamine use and misuse may involve both legally and illegally produced substances.
- Methamphetamine: Almost all methamphetamine in the United States is manufactured illegally, often in highly dangerous meth labs.
- Amphetamines: People who take prescription amphetamines as directed by their physician can experience improved health and better quality of life with minimal side effects.
- Methamphetamine: Methamphetamine use always carries severe risks – that’s why prescriptions are rare. Using methamphetamine exposes people to significant physical and psychological harm.
Amphetamine and Methamphetamine Use Disorder
- Both amphetamines and methamphetamine are addictive. But methamphetamine use disorder addiction typically develops more quickly than amphetamine use disorder.
- A 2009 study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry reported that methamphetamine has a more powerful effect on dopamine transporters than amphetamines do, which leads to the release of a greater amount of dopamine in the central nervous system.
- According to the researchers who conducted this study, methamphetamine’s impact on dopamine transmitters may explain why methamphetamine misuse causes a more intense sense of euphoria and poses a higher risk for disordered than amphetamines do.
- Amphetamines: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that about 18 million Americans use prescription stimulants. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 3.7 million people age 12 and older misused a prescription stimulant in 2020. In the same year, about 1.5 million people in this age group reported the disordered use of prescription stimulants.
- Methamphetamine: NIDA’s data also indicated that about 2.5 million people age 12 and older used methamphetamine at least once in 2020, and about 1.6 million people were had methamphetamine use disorder.
Summary: Amphetamines Have Important Uses, But Present Real Risks
Amphetamines do have important medical uses. Prescription amphetamines help people with attention disorders and people with sleep disorders like narcolepsy. Millions of people take over-the-counter medication containing amphetamines for weight loss. However, the consequences of chronic amphetamine use are serious, and the consequences of chronic methamphetamine use and methamphetamine use disorder can be devastating. Health problems can become life-threatening, and the psychological consequences – such as paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions – can lead to risky behavior.
That’s why it’s important for anyone who uses prescription amphetamines to follow doctor’s orders carefully, and avoid the temptation of misuse, which can quickly escalate to disordered used and a wide range of negative physical, psychological, emotional, and behavioral consequences.