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Bath Salts: Facts And Treatments

So-called “bath salt” drugs appeared in numerous frightening news stories in the late 2000s, which mostly involved young people who purchased these addictive chemicals legally at convenience stores. If your teen is abusing bath salts, stop the problem in its tracks by finding treatment.

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13 min read

What Are Bath Salts?

Bath salts are synthetic cathinones, which are chemical products that subverted drug laws in the mid-2000s and were sold over-the-counter at convenience stores. A number of companies marketed the products — collectively referred to as “bath salts” by the media — as things such as plant food, glass cleaner and insect repellent. Bath salts look like Epsom salts (i.e. white or brown granule-like powder). They typically involve a combination of manmade chemicals either partially derived from or designed to mimic cathinone, or a stimulant found in the khat plant.

Bath salts are often labeled as “not for human consumption,” but the word-of-mouth regarding their intense high spread quickly among teenagers and young adults. In 2011, there were nearly 23,000 ER visits in the U.S. related to synthetic cathinones. In 2015, around 1% of 12th graders said they’d used bath salts in the past year. Despite their dangerous and sometimes fatal side effects, numerous companies still sell these designer drugs online and in a handful of shops.

History of Bath Salts

Certain synthetic cathinones, such as mephedrone and methylone, were first synthesized in the late 1920s in France. Drugs containing these chemicals were tested for their possible medicinal use, but scientists quickly learned of their addictiveness and other serious side effects. Over the following years, synthetic cathinones were abused in numerous European countries before making their way to the United States in the 1990s.

Because they share many qualities of amphetamines — especially crystal meth and the popular party drug MDMA (or ecstasy) — they began to appear mixed with these drugs. Many ecstasy pills in the 2000s actually contained “bath salts” rather than pure MDMA. Internet forums made synthetic cathinones increasingly popular. Soon, people in these forums learned of companies selling synthetic cathinones in stores (labeled as plant food, phone screen cleaner, etc.), and teens flocked to the products as a legal way to get high.

Public awareness of bath salts became widespread as poison control calls skyrocketed by more than 1000% between 2010 and 2011. In 2012, President Obama signed a federal ban on the common chemicals in bath salts, including methylone and mephedrone. But companies continue to develop these products with new, unknown synthetic chemicals, and teens can still find them if they search online.

News stories of teen bath salt addiction and its side effects continue to pop up around the country. Approximately 60% of poison control calls regarding synthetic drugs like bath salts involve users aged 25 or younger, and 67% involve simultaneous use of another drug.

Popular Street Names

According to Newsweek, there are now more than 70 varieties of “bath salt” products available in the U.S. The intensity and specific side effects vary on which product your teen buys and which chemicals are mixed in with it. Due to the nature of this industry, the chemical compounds are changing all the time.

Some of the popular street names for bath salts, usually based off the product they’re sold as, include:

  • Cloud 9 or Cloud Nine
  • Bloom
  • Vanilly Sky
  • White Lightning
  • Scarface
  • Ivory Wave
  • Purple Wave
  • Red Dove
  • Zoom
  • Ocean Snow
  • Hurricane Charlie
  • Drone
  • Meph
  • Jeff
  • Meow Meow

What is Flakka?

A young adult high on Flakka

In 2014, a drug called flakka arrived in the U.S. from China, and quickly caused a wave of terror in Florida. Its primary component is alpha-PVP, a synthetic cathinone much like those in bath salts. Sold in $5 doses and closely resembling bath salts, flakka became immensely popular on the streets among mostly poor users, and hundreds have experienced the drug’s terrifying withdrawal and side effects — including a body temperature of up to 106 degrees and “excited delirium,” a mix of paranoia, hyperstimulation and extreme hallucinations. In south Florida alone, flakka caused more than 60 deaths between 2014 and 2015, and hospitals in Broward County reported 25–30 ER visits a day related to the drug in December of 2015.

Where to Buy Bath Salts

Teens may find flakka and bath salts on the streets or through friends, as with most other illicit drugs. They may also be able to find them in gas stations, tobacco shops or online retailers. Due to increasingly stricter laws, less and less physical stores are willing to sell the once over-the-counter products. But the online marketplace for bath salts is larger than ever, and kids can track down the drug and have it delivered with nothing more than a credit card number. If you didn’t already monitor your family’s Internet use closely — including on their smartphones — this should be push you to do so.

How Are Bath Salts Used?

A teen using bath salts

Synthetic cathinones can enter the body in a number of ways. When using bath salts or flakka, teens typically swallow, snort, smoke or inject the drugs. Many teens will also mix bath salts with other substances, not the least of which is synthetic marijuana (or the K2 drug). Around 15% of ER visits related to bath salts also involve marijuana or synthetic marijuana.

Paraphernalia

Finding paraphernalia (or objects related to bath salts) is one way to be certain that these drugs are involved. Bath salt paraphernalia includes small, plastic packaging or canisters, often with colorful designs and labels, with the popular slang terms used as brand names. You may also find pipes, needles, lighters, rolled up dollar bills or pieces of paper (used for snorting), or remnants of the drug itself (i.e. bits of white, crystalline powder on tabletops or clothes). Bath salts often have an odd, distinctive smell as well, especially when smoked.

If you discover any clues in your teen’s room, school supplies, laundry, car, or garbage can, pull it aside and research whether it’s related to bath salts or not. It’s important to know exactly what substances you’re dealing with if your son or daughter has a problem, so you can get them the necessary attention as soon as possible. Save the evidence you find so you can bring it out when approaching your teen about their problem.

Are Bath Salts Legal?

Three of the most well-known synthetic cathinones — mephedrone, methylone, and MDPV (or methylenedioxypyrovalerone) — were effectively made illegal with the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 2012. The law reclassified 24 additional synthetic compounds as Schedule I drugs as well. But as of 2012, there were 158 new synthetic substances identified, and more are created each year by companies attempting to market synthetic designer drugs. So while the original bath salt products are illegal, many of these drugs are still technically legal. Additionally, the majority of synthetic cathinones don’t show up on drug tests.

The DEA has worked hard to keep up with these chemicals as they’re developed so that they can be identified and banned, but because of how complicated the process is, the drug companies have managed to remain one step ahead of the government.

What Are the Effects of Bath Salt Abuse?

A confused man high on bath salts

Teen bath salt abuse has proven as hazardous as the country’s biggest drug threats, if not more so in some cases. Because young people can get their hands on bath salts easily and inexpensively, the problem often escalates quickly into a life-threatening habit. A single use can send a teenager into hysteria and endanger their lives as well as the lives of those around them. It’s important to know how drugs affect the brain and body of teenagers.

Effects on the Brain

It’s nearly impossible for you to know exactly what you’re ingesting when you take these synthetic cathinone products. Certain hallucinogens are occasionally in the mix, which can alter the user’s perception in an unpredictable way and cause them to hallucinate (i.e. sense things that aren’t there).

In general, synthetic cathinones are psychoactive stimulants. The user’s brain will unleash copious amounts of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that help manage happiness and energy levels. These are the same chemicals released when a teens takes ecstasy, cocaine or meth. Because packages of bath salts don’t come with instructions or recommended dosages, naive and overanxious teens often take excessive amounts — perhaps even the entire package all at once. And when the brain is hit with that much of a stimulant, the nervous system can overload.

Psychological effects of bath salts can include:

  • Paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Mood swings
  • Lowered inhibition
  • Increased sex drive
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Prolonged sleeplessness
  • Psychosis
  • Delusions
  • Suicidal thinking

MDPV, the most common synthetic cathinone discovered in bath salt ER patients, impacts the brain much like cocaine — only it’s 10 times more powerful. After a heavy session with bath salts, users may try to reverse the undesirable effects with sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medications. This can potentially exacerbate the problem, and put a user’s mind through a roller coaster of conflicting side effects.

Effects on the Body

A Young man high on bath salts

The overstimulation of the nervous system caused by bath salts regularly results in hyperthermia (or a dangerously high body temperature) because the body can’t dissipate heat fast enough to keep the user cooled down. This uncomfortably high body heat, combined with the slew of psychological side effects, is enough to drive the average user to the brink of insanity. But it’s far from the only physical consequence of the drug.

Other physical side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Nosebleeds
  • Dehydration
  • Breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue
  • Tremors
  • Kidney failure
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure

Death has been reported in dozens of cases of bath salt abuse, and is possible even in a first-time use. Snorting and injecting the drug are generally associated with the worst outcomes.

Attack of Bath Salt & Flakka Zombies

The reckless behavior caused by synthetic cathinones has reached certain new extremes, not observed previously with other substance abuse problems. Numerous news stories associate “zombie-like” responses to the drug — users attempting to bite or eat nearby people, and sometimes succeeding.

Experts use the term “excited delirium” to describe the volatile combination of side effects such as paranoia, sleeplessness and hallucinations. In several cases, for whatever reason, users high off these drugs have responded to this excited delirium by violently attacking others, occasionally going so far as to maliciously bite them. These “zombie attacks” are now commonly associated with these drugs, both as a strange reference and a grave warning of the possible risks.

Are Bath Salts Addictive?

Potential for addiction varies based on which chemicals are in a specific dose of bath salts. Research on some of the most common synthetic cathinones reveal they are overwhelmingly addictive. One study of MDPV on rats revealed that it may be even more addictive than crystal meth.

When a teen tries to stop after getting hooked on the drug, they may experience severe and debilitating withdrawal symptoms, causing them to seek another fix at any cost. These withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Intense cravings

A teen addicted to bath salts may not stop until their body shuts down, or they’re addiction to bath salts drives them to hurt others. If your son or daughter is abusing these highly unpredictable drugs, their only hope of stopping may be a swift intervention and professional care.

How to Treat Bath Salt Addiction

Studies on the effectiveness of drug rehab for bath salts addiction are elusive, as the actual contents of these drugs are always changing. In many hospitalizations for synthetic drugs like bath salts, doctors have to learn on the fly how to treat the patients. If you are able to address your teen’s bath salts abuse early enough, get them help immediately.

Your family doctor may recommend a stay in an inpatient rehab facility. Residential substance abuse treatment allows teens with a drug addiction to escape their daily temptations and avoid the risk of overdosing on bath salts or any other substances they may be misusing. They will be taken care of as they detox — where the body naturally flushes out the synthetic cathinones — and prepare for whatever additional treatment the doctors recommend. A substance abuse treatment plan may include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Contingency management (i.e. offering rewards for staying clean)
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Behavior management courses

Therapy and counseling in adolescent rehab are designed to address psychological changes in a teenager that stems from drug abuse. A successful rehab program can undo some of this damage, reshape the patient’s attitude towards drug use, and retrain an addicted teen how to live without bath salts.

Dual Diagnosis

An addiction to bath salts may only be part of the picture — half of the teens who struggle with substances abuse also have a co-occurring mental health disorder. This is referred to as a dual diagnosis. Teenagers may turn to substances in response to their mental health problem, and in some cases, these disorders may develop as a result of their substance abuse. Whatever the case, your teen may require a specialized dual diagnosis treatment that addresses both health problems simultaneously — referred to as an “integrated approach.” It’s vital to take note of any possible signs of a mental health disorder, and have your child properly assessed with a doctor you can trust.

Common co-occurring disorders in addicted teens, including those who abuse bath salts, are:

  • Depression (also known as depressive disorder)
  • Anxiety (also known as anxiety disorder)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD)
  • Schizophrenia

Eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) are additional mental health disorders that appear in thousands of teens. It’s not uncommon for these kids to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. If synthetic cathinones are available to them, they may be at risk for developing a habit.

Does Your Child Need Treatment?

If you notice the signs of substance abuse, reach out to a professional, who can assess the situation and determine whether your child is dealing with addiction. This person might be your family doctor or guidance counselor. Our addiction specialists at TeenRehabCenter.org are also available to speak with you, free of cost.

In most cases, addiction requires some form of treatment, whether that is detox and regular counseling, or inpatient or outpatient drug rehab. Your treatment professional of choice can discuss your family’s situation with you, and advise you about the best option.

Even if you’re not sure whether your child has a problem, do not wait to reach out for help. We at TeenRehabCenter.org have spoken with too many parents who say that they wish they had reached out for help sooner. Don’t let that happen to your family. Call for a free conversation with an addiction specialist today.

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