What Is Ecstasy?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 26, 2023
6 min read

Ecstasy is a synthetic drug (meaning it is made of lab-made chemicals) that increases levels of energy, happiness, and empathetic feelings toward others, but it also causes negative effects, from muscle cramps to depression to heart failure. In high doses, it can cause death. 

Its chemical name is 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, or MDMA. In its pure form, ecstasy is a crystalline powder and is commonly taken by mouth as a capsule. 

Even small doses of ecstasy can harm your mental, physical, or emotional well-being.

Ecstasy is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which means you could face jail time with it in your possession. Ecstasy/MDMA is also not approved for medical use. 

It was first made by German scientists in 1912, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became widely available on the streets. It can be used by people to increase a feeling of alertness and experience longer periods of happiness and may also enhance emotional and sexual relationships. 

Along with these mental and physical effects of ecstasy, the drug also causes changes in how you see the world, such as not knowing what time it is or seeing things that are not there. 

It’s sold in a variety of colors. Ecstasy tablets are often marked with a symbol, number, or word. For example, a tablet might have the word “sky” written on it, relating to the type of “high” you will experience.   

Common street names for ecstasy include: 

  • XTC
  • Lover’s speed
  • X
  • Molly, short for “molecular”
  • Disco biscuit
  • E
  • Adam

It’s similar to other stimulant and hallucinogen drugs. Ecstasy directly affects your brain’s levels of serotonin (mood), dopamine (energy), and norepinephrine (heart rate). You can experience many side effects when taking ecstasy, and you need to be aware of what you’re taking before using.

Ecstasy is most popular among younger males, ranging from 18 to 25 years old. In a 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it was shown that of those 12 years of age and older, almost 2.2 million people used ecstasy in the last 12 months.

Concerns are especially high for those who are still in middle or high school as their brains are not fully developed. A 2022 survey showed that 0.6% of eighth graders (13 years old) said they used ecstasy in the last year. 

Gay, lesbian, or bisexual people are more likely to have used ecstasy within the last 30 days. They are also more likely to report harm from its use.

Ways people use ecstasy:

  • Swallowing by tablet or capsule (most popular)
  • Snorting by crushing tablet 
  • Swallowing in liquid form
  • Sometimes smoked 

It takes about 45 minutes or longer to feel the effects of ecstasy. Feelings spike again about 15 to 30 minutes later. On average, one dose of ecstasy can last at least 3 hours overall.

As the effects begin to fade, people often take another dose of ecstasy to double the time it lasts.

For street use, ecstasy is made illegally in labs with many ingredients, including isosafrole, amphetamine, and caffeine. Note that if a drug is sold as “ecstasy,” it still may not have any MDMA at all. Addictive ingredients are used to make ecstasy, causing you to crave more. 

Research shows that when police officers find ecstasy, in most cases the drug has been mixed with other dangerous substances. These can include:

  • Bath salts 
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine 
  • Ketamine
  • Rat poison 
  • Cough medicine 

Ecstasy should not be taken with other substances like alcohol, cocaine, or marijuana due to its raised risk of health effects.

When you take ecstasy, the drug increases the way your brain chemicals work.

  • Serotonin. The drug boosts your serotonin levels and causes you to have an elevated mood and feel really happy or high. 
  • Dopamine. Ecstasy affects your levels of dopamine, which causes a person to become very energized and active. 
  • Norepinephrine. Ecstasy also increases your heart rate and raises blood pressure from your norepinephrine being activated. 

People with heart problems can be at risk when using ecstasy and especially when taken in high doses. 

After a week following moderate use of ecstasy, people can experience depression, irritability, anxiety, and problems with sleeping. 

Other side effects include: 

  • Sweating
  • Blurry vision
  • Nausea
  • Appetite loss
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of desire to have sex 

It’s important to know that the effects of ecstasy will be different from person to person. Your health, weight, the amount you’ve taken, and other drugs used with ecstasy can all play a role. These differences can cause a person to react differently to the effects of ecstasy when on the drug and coming down from it. 

High doses of ecstasy can cause a spike in your body temperature. This can cause heart, liver, or kidney failure or even death.

Even though ecstasy includes addictive ingredients, there is very little research to prove that you can get addicted to the drug. Research shows drugs like cocaine have a higher potential for addiction than ecstasy.

Elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine also play a role in a drug being addictive due to an increase in impulsivity. People have reported experiencing withdrawal symptoms like fatigue and loss of concentration.

There is never a good time to take an illegal substance or misuse it. When it comes to the amount of MDMA in a tablet of ecstasy, you never know how much or how little of the drug there is and how you will react to it. If you do use it, take precautions to avoid any accidents such as an overdose. It’s important to know how to reduce risk if you are to do so.

Stay hydrated. Before and during your time on ecstasy, drink one 16-ounce bottle of water for every hour that passes while on the drug. This will stop you from getting dehydrated and possibly fainting or feeling lightheaded. 

Be around trusted friends. Don’t use ecstasy alone. At best, have at least one person who is going to be ecstasy-free during the session. If problems arise, they’ll need to call for help.

Be in a safe and familiar environment. When you begin to feel the effects of ecstasy like changes to the way you see the world around you, a familiar environment can provide you with a sense of security to know where you are. Avoid being around bodies of water, hills, or being in a car. 

Take it in small doses. If you’re going to take ecstasy, try to take it in mini doses. This could mean cutting a tablet into quarters and only taking one at a time. It’s a lot safer to test your limits instead of diving right in.

If you choose to take ecstasy, use it with as much precaution as possible. Educate yourself and your friends about the safety tips for ecstasy use to reduce unwanted health problems.

Although there are no medications to help with addiction to ecstasy, some people who have had issues with ecstasy have reported that behavioral therapy can help. Behavioral therapy teaches you skills to better manage the situations that trigger your need to use ecstasy. 

Reaching out for help from friends and family can be a great way to gain support. If you communicate your problems about ecstasy and express the desire for help, you can avoid substance use disorders.

Do your research, educate yourself, and reach out to local or virtual organizations that can provide support with addiction. 

If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts while using ecstasy, call or text 988 (the national suicide hotline). You can also chat with someone at www.988lifeline.org.

If you or someone you know overdoses, call poison control at 800-222-1222 to speak to an expert. Call 911 or head to the nearest hospital to receive medical help right away.