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Meth vs. Heroin | Is One Worse than the Other?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Oct 5, 2023

Heroin and meth both represent potentially lethal substances with unique side effects. Heroin is an opioid that depresses the central nervous system to induce profound sedation and respiratory depression, while meth serves as a stimulant that increases energy and alertness. Both can result in severe psychological or physical consequences.[1]

What Is Meth? 

Methamphetamine (meth) is an extremely potent and addictive central nervous system stimulant made up of synthetic chemicals that chemically mimic amphetamines.[2] Meth is often produced illegally using various ingredients, including pseudoephedrine, which is used in cold medicines and toxic or flammable solvents sourced through illicit laboratories.

Production processes can be hazardous and pose considerable danger, both to those directly involved and to local communities. Explosions or toxic fumes from machinery could occur at any moment during the creation process, posing serious threats to the makers of the drug as well as others in the area.

What Is Heroin? 

Heroin is a potent and illegal opioid drug derived from morphine. It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin.” [3] Heroin use leads to intense euphoria, sedation, pain relief and feelings of relaxation. 

It also carries significant risks, including respiratory depression, drowsiness, confusion, and a high potential for overdose and addiction.[4] Long-term use can lead to serious health issues, including liver and kidney disease, collapsed veins and increased susceptibility to infectious diseases.

Meth vs. Heroin Breakdown 

Type of DrugOpioidStimulant
Visual AppearanceWhite or brown powder, black tar heroinWhite crystalline powder or crystals
Ways to ConsumeInjecting, snorting or smokingSnorting, smoking, swallowing or injecting 
Change in Brain ChemistryBinds to opioid receptors, induces euphoria and pain relief Increases dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, leading to intense euphoria and increased alertness
Physical SensationsEuphoria, sedation and pain reliefIncreased physical activity, alertness and reduced appetite 
Mental SensationsRelaxation and reduced anxietyIncreased focus, confidence and agitation
RisksRespiratory depression, overdose, addiction and infectious diseases due to sharing needlesCardiovascular issues, paranoia, aggression, addiction and dental problems
Level of AddictivenessHighly addictive, rapid development of physical and psychological dependenceHighly addictive, rapid development of physical and psychological dependence
Overdose Deaths per Year13,165 overdose deaths in 2020 involving heroin23,837 overdose deaths in 2020 involving methamphetamine

Is One Worse Than the Other? 

Comparison between heroin and meth can be difficult because both substances pose serious threats to individuals and society at large. The severity of effects depends on personal factors, such as use pattern and purity of the product in any given batch. 

In general, however, while heroin and meth are very different in effect and chemical makeup, they are both extremely dangerous and addictive drugs with distinct risks and side effects.

Dangers of Heroin

These are some of the dangers associated with heroin use:[3]

Physical Dangers

Heroin use depresses the central nervous system, leading to slowed breathing and heart rate, increasing the risk of respiratory failure and fatal overdose. Injecting heroin also poses additional dangers, such as the transmission of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis if needles are used and shared.[7]

Long-term heroin use can lead to collapsed veins, abscesses, and organ damage. It can also cause severe constipation and hormonal imbalances.[8]

Mental Health Issues

Repeated use of heroin can lead to various mental health issues, including depression, antisocial personality disorder and other mood disorders. 

Side Effects
Euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, slowed breathing, dry mouth, itching, confusion, and decreased cognitive function are all common while under the influence of heroin.

Opioid Use Disorder

Heroin is highly addictive, and repeated use can quickly lead to an opioid use disorder (OUD). Both physical and psychological dependence can develop rapidly, making it challenging for users to quit without professional help. 

Withdrawal Symptoms
When someone is physically dependent on heroin, they are used to having a certain amount of the drug in their system at all times. If the amount in their system drops below a certain level, they begin to develop significant withdrawal symptoms that can include flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, bone pain, vomiting, diarrhea and intense agitation and anxiety.

Dangers of Meth

These are some of the dangers associated with meth use:[2]

Physical Dangers

Meth use can result in elevated heart rate, blood pressure increases and hyperthermia which places undue strain on the cardiovascular system.[9] Long-term meth use can cause extreme weight loss and malnutrition due to reduced appetite, dental issues and skin conditions.

Mental Health Issues 

Long-term meth use can have adverse psychological side effects, including triggering anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations and violent behavior.[1]

Methamphetamine Use Disorder

Meth is highly addictive. The intense rush it produces makes users more vulnerable to continued use, leading to an eventual methamphetamine use disorder.[10]

Side Effects

Increased alertness and energy, euphoria, decreased appetite, weight loss, hyperactivity, restlessness, insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns, agitation, anxiety, paranoia, irregular heartbeat and potential heart damage are all potential effects of using methamphetamine. 

Withdrawal Process

After a meth binge, people often report experiencing extreme low energy, suicidal depression and residual anxiety and agitation. Though it may seem like a relatively simple process to stop using meth, cravings for the drug can pop up unexpectedly weeks, months and even years after cessation of use and treatment, triggering relapse. 

Both Heroin and Meth Are Harmful

Both drugs can have devastating effects on a user’s physical and mental well-being, impacting their personal wellness, family relationships, career prospects and their communities in ways that can feel irreparable. 

The good news is that increased awareness of the risks of both drugs, plus increased access to treatment and support services, can reduce the damage of heroin and meth use on personal, familial and communal levels. 

Let Bicycle Health Help

Both heroin and methamphetamine pose significant risks, even with seemingly casual use. Repeated use means an opioid use disorder or meth use disorder, but there is hope in recovery. At Bicycle Health, we offer Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) with use of Suboxone to treat OUD. 

Our evidence-based treatment services are available via telehealth, so everyone in need can access this care. To find out more about Bicycle Health’s unique approach to recovery, contact us today to learn more about the program and find out if it’s a good fit for you.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

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