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The Effects of 'Bath Salts'

Synthetic Cathinones Pose Serious Health Risks

By

Updated May 03, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Ivory Wave

Ivory Wave

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Little research has been done on the health effects of synthetic cathinones, commonly known as bath salts, but health officials have seen enough to know they pose serious health risks. Because these synthetic drugs are relatively new, there has not been enough time to study their long-term effects.

However, reports from emergency departments and poison control centers of adverse reactions to the drugs have been numerous enough for the National Institute on Drug Abuse to term bath salts "a serious and growing public health and safety issue."

What Are Bath Salts?

Not to be confused with products like Epson salts that are actual bathing aids, synthetic cathinones are marketed as "bath salts" to disguise their real purpose as recreational drugs that can produce euphoria and increased sociability and sex drive.

The drugs are sold under brand names like "Ivory Wave," "Vanilla Sky," "Purple Wave," "Red Dove," "Scarface," "Blue Silk," "Zoom," "Bloom," "Cloud Nine," "Ocean Snow," "Lunar Wave," "White Lightning," and "Hurricane Charlie."

As law enforcement began to crack down on the sale of bath salts, the drugs recently have been sold in stores and online as plant food, jewelry cleaner, phone screen cleaner or "research chemicals." The packages are usually marked, "not for human consumption."

The products, mostly made in China, are also known as "fake cocaine" because they mimic the effects of that drug.

No Longer Legal

Originally promoted as legal cocaine, the drugs have now been declared a Schedule I substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and laws have been passed banning their sale by many cities and states, after hospitals and physicians began reporting numerous cases of patients with adverse effects from using the drugs.

Bath Salts and the Brain

Chemically, the ingredients in bath salts products are closer to amphetamine than cocaine. There are many different synthetic cathinones used to make bath salts, but the most common are 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, and methylone. All of them have been shown to raise the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in brain circuits regulating reward and movement, much like methamphetamine and cocaine.

However, one study revealed that MDPV, the most common synthetic cathinone used in bath salts, raised the dopamine levels in the brain like cocaine, but was 10 times more potent.

Additionally, another study has found that mephedrone and methylone can raise the level of serotonin in the brain similar to the way MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD affects the brain, producing hallucinations.

Health Effects of Bath Salts

Reports from hospital emergency rooms and poison control centers across the United States have recorded patients experiencing paranoia, agitation and hallucinatory delirium, according to the NIDA. Some users have exhibited psychotic and violent behavior.

Several deaths have been reported as a result of using bath salts.

Other symptoms reported by healthcare providers include:

  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Chest pains
  • Panic attacks
  • Excited delirium
  • Dehydration
  • Kidney failure

Potentially Addictive

Some research has shown that synthetic cathinones are potentially highly addictive. In a study with rats, scientists found escalating self-administration patterns of MDPV similar to those produced by methamphetamine.

Users have reported intense craving for more of the drug and indications are that frequent consumption of bath salts could possibly induce dependence, tolerance and strong withdrawal symptoms - reactions usually associated with addictive drugs.

Other Hazards

Bath salts containing synthetic cathinones are sold as alternatives to their illegal counterparts - amphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy - with the idea that they are "safer" than the illicit drugs. But the opposite may be true.

Synthetic cathinones may be potentially as additive as the illegal drugs, and moreover bath salts products might contain other ingredients which could produce their own adverse effects.

Health officials say this is one of the main dangers of using bath salts products, you never really know what you are getting.

Sources:

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. "Synthetic cathinones." Accessed May 2013.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "DrugFacts: Synthetic Cathinones ("Bath Salts")." Revised November 2012.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Emerging Trends." Revised April 2013.

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