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GHB Addiction: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

White powder on table

What is GHB?

GHB stands for Gamma-hydroxybutyrate. GHB is a chemical substance used in harsh household products such as paint strippers and drain cleaners.

GHB is a central nervous system depressant or sedative which increases levels of dopamine in the brain. In the 1960s it was thought that GHB could be used medically as an effective and fast-acting anaesthetic. However, it soon became clear that it did not have pain-killing properties and had unacceptable side effects.

It is usually sold as an oily odourless and colourless liquid, although it is also available in powder or capsule form. The drug is slightly salty but has very little taste. One of the disadvantages of these properties is that it can easily be added undetected to a drink. For this reason, it has earned a reputation as a date rape drug, used to induce loss of memory or unconsciousness in a victim.

GHB is usually taken orally, but needs to be mixed into a soft drink, as consuming the liquid on its own can cause chemical burns in the mouth, throat and stomach. Injecting the liquid is highly dangerous. In its powdered form, GHB can be snorted, although this is rare.

The substance is sold under a range of names, including liquid ecstasy, liquid X, GBH, scoop, and cherry meth, and is commonly used by students and young people at clubs, raves and parties.

GHB was once considered to be a harmless food supplement. However, medical professionals soon became aware of the harmful side effects of GHB. Despite this, today it is still used by some bodybuilders because of its reputed anabolic effects enhancing muscle growth.

Drugs such as GHB and methamphetamine are often linked with chemsex where sexual activity occurs between men while under the influence of the drugs.

What are GHB effects?

There are some similarities between GHB effects and the effects of drinking alcohol. In small doses, GHB gives a mild high. In slightly higher doses it acts as a sedative. Taking GHB can lead to effects such as:

  • Euphoria
  • Hallucinations
  • Enhanced confidence
  • Increased libido
  • Feeling relaxed
  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Psychotic thoughts
  • Aggression
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of balance and motor control
  • Incoherent or slurred speech
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Memory loss
  • Severe anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

The user starts to feel the high within 15-20 minutes of ingesting the drug. GHB effects usually wear off after approximately one or two hours, but they can last for several hours. Traces of GHB are usually eliminated from the body within 12 hours.

Some young people prefer GHB to alcohol because it is not high in calories and it doesn’t cause a hangover.

Using GHB increases a person’s risk of having an accident or becoming the victim of an attack because even in smaller doses it impairs thought processes

How likely is a GHB overdose?

Overdosing on GHB is common because there is a very small margin between the amount needed to achieve the desired effect and the amount which will cause an overdose. Using a precise measure, such as a pipette, can help to reduce the risk of severe overdose. However, GHB carries a greater risk of overdose than many drugs, because the difference between the quantity needed for recreational use and the quantity which will cause an overdose can be as little as one millimetre. The reality is that many users are not sufficiently precise.

The risks of a GHB overdose are even greater among those people who re-dose, taking a second dose too soon after the first dose because the effects are starting to wear off. Re-dosing can be tempting because there is no hangover, and the effects wear off more quickly than with some other substances.

Overdose is dangerous because it can quickly induce a coma. This leaves users unable to protect themselves and vulnerable to assault. There is also a risk that the user stops breathing, and there have been many fatalities from GHB overdose.

GHB is particularly dangerous if it is used in conjunction with other depressant substances, for example, if it is mixed with an alcoholic drink. Within a few minutes, the user can fall into a coma.

Poorly produced GHB poses even greater risks and can be highly toxic, particularly if sodium hydroxide is present, which has a caustic effect.

What are the signs of GHB use and GHB addiction?

Regular use of GHB can easily lead to a dependence on the drug. Even binge-use over a period of a week or two can quickly lead to addiction. After binging on GHB some people will find the cravings so strong that they quickly find themselves moving from using GHB recreationally at weekends to taking it daily.

GHB Addiction Symptoms

It is not always easy to spot GHB use or addiction. The symptoms of GHB use can differ from one person to another, and there can be some similarities with the effects of alcohol or ecstasy. If use of these substances has been ruled out while these symptoms are being displayed, it could be that GHB is to blame.

Signs to look out which may indicate GHB addiction include:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Sleep patterns changing
  • Changed eating habits
  • Failing to maintain usual standards of personal hygiene
  • Less responsible attitudes to school or work
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in personality
  • A shift in social circle

GHB withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms from a GHB addiction can include:

  • Restlessness/agitation
  • Sweating
  • Confusion
  • Trembling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Seizures

In severe cases, withdrawal can also lead to coma.

GHB withdrawal symptoms can start almost immediately after use has stopped. Some people with severe addiction will experience GHB withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium, within as little as six hours.

GHB addiction treatment

Research has shown that overcoming a GHB addiction can be as challenging as beating a heroin dependency.

A person who has developed a GHB addiction requires professional help to stop taking the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that the detox process should always be managed carefully with the support of a specialist.

A medical detox facility can offer the round-the-clock monitoring and assistance needed to overcome an addiction. The detox process usually takes 3-5 days.

This is followed by a series of treatments, which are tailored to the needs of the individual but can include exercise programmes, nutritional support, and therapy to explore and challenge the underlying reasons for abusing the drug.

Relapse prevention support will also be given.