SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- MDMA (also known as ecstasy) is an illegal synthetic drug that is classed as an empathogen (increases feeling of empathy and compassion towards others) but also acts as a nervous system stimulant.
- In high doses, MDMA can cause hallucinations and floating sensations, as well as seizures and vomiting.
- In some cases, MDMA can contribute to death as a result of heart attack, stroke, overheating or if a person drinks too much water.
- In an emergency, dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance. Ambulance officers are not obliged to contact the police.
- If taking MDMA, think about your setting, who you are with, and your dosage. It is helpful to have a plan in place in case of emergency or if you start to feel unwell.
On this page
- What is MDMA (ecstasy)?
- How MDMA is used
- How MDMA works
- Risks of MDMA
- How MDMA affects the body
- 'Coming down’ from MDMA
- Symptoms of MDMA overdose
- In an emergency, call for help
- Long-term effects of MDMA
- MDMA dependence, tolerance and withdrawal
- ‘Liquid ecstasy’ isn’t ecstasy
- Synthetic ecstasy
- Treatment for MDMA misuse
- MDMA and the law
- Where to get help
What is MDMA (ecstasy)?
Ecstasy is the common name for the illegal synthetic drug called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It is classified as an empathogen, which means it increases feelings of empathy and compassion towards others. It also acts as a stimulant, since it speeds up the workings of the central nervous system and at high doses can also alter someone’s perception of reality giving it hallucinogenic qualities.
MDMA is commonly used as a mood enhancer at parties and nightclubs. In high doses, MDMA can cause seizures and vomiting or may contribute to death.
Common slang terms for MDMA (ecstasy) include the 'love drug', 'E', 'eckies', ‘pingers’ and ‘caps’. MDMA is usually swallowed as a tablet but can come in powder form. Pills are usually different colours and have pictures or logos stamped on them. There have also been reports of crystal MDMA in Australia and Victoria in recent years.
The effects of MDMA are usually felt about 20 minutes to an hour after it is taken and last for around 3-4 hours. The comedown (or return to normal as the drug leaves the body) may last one to 2 days or up to a week.
How MDMA is used
MDMA was originally developed in Germany. Today, MDMA is generally made in illegal laboratories, which means the person taking it has no idea if the dose will be strong or weak, or even if it will contain any MDMA at all.
It is possible for pills sold as ecstasy tablets to contain little or no MDMA. They may contain other chemicals (such as amphetamines, PMA, PMMA or ketamine), or ‘fillers’ (such as household products) which may have unexpected or dangerous side effects.
Ecstasy usually comes as pills (capsules or tablets), but can come as a powder or crystal. Most people take pills, but some may snort (inhaled through the nose), smoke or inject ecstasy.
How MDMA works
MDMA works by stimulating the central nervous system. This means people can feel a burst of energy.
MDMA can also heighten and distort your senses (sight and sound), and can increase feelings of love and happiness. This is often caused by the increase in brain chemicals such as serotonin (happy) and dopamine (reward).
Risks of MDMA
People with certain conditions – such as epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease or mood or psychiatric disorders – are at greater risk of harm if they take MDMA.
MDMA can be dangerous if it is mixed with other drugs including alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, ice and some prescription medications (such as antidepressants).
How MDMA affects the body
The effects of MDMA can vary from person to person and depend on factors such as:
- the amount and strength of the dose
- your physical make-up and state of mind
- how you respond to the drug (for example, a first-time user may experience different effects to someone who has used it before)
- whether it has been mixed with other drugs.
Generally, effects begin around 20 minutes and will last around 3 to 4 hours. They may include:
- euphoria and feeling energetic and confident
- accelerated heart rate and breathing
- rise in blood pressure
- sweating and dehydration
- jaw clenching and teeth grinding
- tingling skin and muscle aches and pains
- dilated pupils
- loss of appetite
- heightened senses
- sleep problems
- feeling affectionate and an increased sex drive (libido)
- loss of inhibitions
- excessive thirst – drinking large amounts of water, which can result in death (approximately 250-500ml of water per hour is okay).
In addition to these symptoms, people who take ecstasy in large or strong doses, may experience further effects such as:
- changes in perception (such as auditory and visual hallucinations)
- irrational behaviour that seems out of character – aggression, paranoia
- anxiety and irritability
'Coming down’ from MDMA
After experiencing a ‘high’, coming down from MDMA can be an unpleasant experience, but rarely dangerous. Typically, you should feel better in 2 to 3 days.
Your comedown experience will depend on a range of factors. Symptoms may include:
- sleep problems and fatigue
- aching muscles
- anxiety, agitation, depression
- trouble concentrating.
Symptoms of MDMA overdose
If the strength of the dose is high or if MDMA is taken in large amounts, it can cause bad reactions or overdose. Signs to watch for include:
- seizures (‘fits’) and vomiting
- a sharp rise in body temperature and blood pressure
- dizziness and confusion
- muscle twitching or cramps
- heart palpitations.
MDMA use can lead to serious harm or death
MDMA may also contribute to serious harm, including:
- cardiac arrest
- kidney failure
- overheating (hyperthermia) and dehydration
- dilutional hyponatremia – where a person’s brain swells from drinking too much water and can lead to coma.
In an emergency, call for help
If you suspect an overdose or severe reaction while using MDMA (ecstasy), dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance immediately. A quick response can save someone’s life.
Don't delay because you think you might get into trouble. Ambulance officers are not obliged to call the police.
Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives. Tell the ambulance officers as much as you can about what drugs were taken, when they were taken and whether the person has a medical condition.
Long-term effects of MDMA
Research on the long-term effects of MDMA is limited, however studies suggest that regular long-term use can cause:
- liver damage
- memory and concentration problems
- colds or flu
- risk of HIV, hepatitis, blood poisoning or skin abscesses – if MDMA is injected using shared needles
- increased use of other drugs (such as benzodiazepines, alcohol or cannabis).
MDMA dependence, tolerance and withdrawal
Some people who use MDMA say that it is hard to stop taking the drug, indicating that it is possible to become psychologically dependent.
Like many other drugs, someone can build up a tolerance to MDMA. This means they need to take larger and larger doses to try and achieve the same effect. However, this can also increase the intensity of unpleasant side effects.
‘Liquid ecstasy’ isn’t ecstasy
The drug known as 'liquid ecstasy' is a different drug to MDMA. Liquid ecstasy is gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), (also known as 'G', grievous bodily harm (GBH) or fantasy).
Unlike MDMA, GHB is a depressant that has sedative and anaesthetic effects.
In recent years, synthetic products, claiming to have similar effects to MDMA, have become available in Australia. The active ingredient in these products can include chemicals – such as benzylpiperazine (BZP), mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), but it is difficult to know what exactly they contain.
As a result, synthetic ecstasy effects can be unpredictable and more harmful than MDMA.
Treatment for MDMA misuse
Treatment options for drug use include:
- individual counselling
- group therapy.
Peer support – or talking to someone who has been in the same situation – can also be helpful.
See your doctor for information and referral or contact an alcohol and other drug service in your area.
MDMA and the law
MDMA is an illegal drug. Penalties apply under federal and state laws for anyone who:
- uses or keeps it in their possession
- supplies or sells it to another person (this includes without their consent – such as drink spiking)
- drives under its influence.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, call triple zero (000)
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Your GP (doctor)
- Path2Help – for support and treatment services
- DirectLine Tel. 1800 888 236 – for confidential counselling, information and referral to a registered methadone prescriber
- DrugInfo Tel. 1300 85 85 84 – for alcohol and other drug information
- Youth Drug and Alcohol Advice service (YoDAA), Victoria Tel. (03) 9415 8881 (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
- Family Drug Help Tel. 1300 660 068 – for information and support for people concerned about a relative or friend using drugs.
- Family Drug Support Tel. 1300 368 186 (24 hours a day, seven days per week)
- SHARC (Self Help Addiction Resource Centre) Peer Support
- Victoria Legal Aid
- MDMA, 2023, Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
- Understanding ecstasy, Headspace, Australia
- Freudenmann RW, Oxler F, Bernschneider-Reif S, 2006, ‘The origin of MDMA (ecstasy) revisited. The true story reconstructed from the original documents’, Addiction, vol. 101, no. 9, pp. 1241–45.
- Curtis M, Dietze P 2017, ‘Victorian trends in ecstasy and related drug markets 2017: Findings from the ecstasy and related drugs reporting system (EDRS)’ Victorian trends in ecstasy and related drug markets 2017, Australian Drug Trend Series No. 193, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales.