Synthetic cathinones, more commonly known as bath salts, are human-made stimulants derived from cathinone, a substance found in the khat plant. In its natural form, cathinone can produce mild stimulating effects. The synthetic version of the drug can cause life-threatening health problems.
A host of chemicals are used to make bath salts. The most popular ingredients include 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone and methylone. These substances are synthetic stimulants with effects similar to amphetamine.
Bath salts are chemically similar to flakka, another synthetic stimulant.
In the last decade, the number of poison control center calls involving synthetic cathinones in the United States has grown. Abuse of these stimulants has led to thousands of cases of overdose, which can be fatal.
Many people know synthetic cathinones by the street name bath salts, but they differ from Epsom salt and other cosmetic bath salts. These legal minerals can be added to bath water to help ease stress and relax muscles. Conversely, synthetic cathinones are illicit drugs produced specifically for recreational use.
Synthetic cathinones are addictive. Addiction is a brain disease that causes compulsive drug-seeking behavior that people continue despite knowing the health, legal and social consequences. It can affect a person’s physical and psychological well-being, relationships and financial standing.
Animal studies have found that rats compulsively self-administer bath salts. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, bath salts can cause humans to feel intense, uncontrollable urges to reuse the synthetic drugs.
Synthetic cathinones look like a white or brown powder. Mephedrone is a fine powder that ranges in color from white to off-white to slightly yellow, but it can also be compressed into capsules or tablets. MDPV is a fine off-white or white powder.
Individuals typically sniff or snort bath salts. But these drugs can also be swallowed, smoked or added to a solution and injected into veins. Snorting or injecting these products is associated with the worst adverse reactions.
The Drug Enforcement Administration invoked its emergency scheduling authority to temporarily ban mephedrone, MDPV and methylone in October 2011. In July 2012, mephedrone and MDPV were permanently classified as Schedule I substances.
As Schedule I drugs, these chemicals have a high potential for abuse and no approved medical use in the United States. However, the illegal chemical ingredients found in bath salts are often tweaked and reintroduced into the market.
Bath salts are often sold at convenience stores in small plastic or foil packages weighing between 200 and 500 milligrams. The labels may say the product is plant food or jewelry cleaner in an effort to deceive law enforcement. The packaging often says the product is not for human consumption.
The effects of bath salts can have devastating consequences on a person’s health. These drugs excite the central nervous system, which can affect heart function and blood pressure. They can also cause overdose and death.
Bath salts can lead to distressing health effects, including:
Research on the effects of synthetic cathinones on the brain is limited. But existing literature shows that these substances cause feelings similar to those produced by amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA. Bath salts can trigger euphoria but also result in extreme agitation and paranoia.
The effects of these drugs are particularly damaging to teens, whose brains are still developing. The 2017 Monitoring the Future survey found that some eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students reported that they used synthetic cathinones in the past year.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, these drugs are most popular among people between ages 20 and 29. People younger than six and older than 59 have been exposed to bath salts.
If someone is overdosing on bath salts, call 911 immediately. The sooner the person is treated, the more likely he or she is to make a full recovery.
According to a 2012 study published in the journal Pharmacy and Therapeutics, benzodiazepines such as lorazepam can be used to treat agitation and seizures induced by synthetic cathinones. Although antipsychotics can be provided to patients with psychotic symptoms, the medications should be used with caution to avoid the risk of seizure.
When benzos and antipsychotics fail to calm someone intoxicated on bath salts, physical restraints may be necessary.
Many people who use bath salts have a history of abusing multiple substances. To reduce the chances of future substance use, people should seek treatment after they recover from the effects of synthetic cathinones.
Rehab facilities can provide behavioral therapies that help people overcome substance abuse and addiction. These treatments include:
If you know someone experiencing suicidal thoughts resulting from bath salts use, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This helpline can instruct you on how to assist a loved one who has thoughts of self-harm.
To learn more about bath salts, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP. This 24/7 hotline provides information about a variety of drugs, including synthetic cathinones. All calls are confidential.
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