What Is Kratom and Is It Harmful?

Kratom sales sign

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A relatively new drug called kratom has hit the drug market in the U.S., and it has many wondering if the drug is a safe alternative to painkillers or just another addictive recreational substance.

What Is Kratom?

The term “kratom” refers to a plant-based drug, sometimes called an herbal supplement, that can produce both opioid-like (pain-relieving) and stimulant-like effects in users, depending on how much of the drug they use. Kratom comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree, and while the substance is commonly used in Southeast Asia, it is a relatively new introduction to America.1

Types of Kratom

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Kratom is currently legal in the United States, and it’s becoming readily accessible. The U.S. and international agencies are reviewing it closely, and it may be banned at some point, but it is currently available, and many are using it under the notion that it can serve as an alternative to painkillers.

However, kratom is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a legitimate pain reliever. It’s not approved by the FDA to cure or treat anything. Further, people who have used kratom have complained that the drug causes withdrawal symptoms and cravings much like opioids do, including unwanted symptoms like pain, fatigue, and stressed mental health. Some users have even experienced serious psychiatric, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory problems from using kratom.

The List of Safety Concerns Gets Longer as More Americans Use Kratom

Man having health problems on a street, kratom use effects.

Kratom is promoted and sold as an energy booster, mood enhancer, pain reliever, and antidote for opioid withdrawal. However, people who experiment with the drug increasingly report safety concerns that suggest kratom is not as safe and helpful as dealers say it is.2

Kratom is used in many ways. Some people chew the kratom leaves, others dry kratom and swallow the crushed, dried leaves in capsules or brew the dried leaves in tea. Kratom extract is also made into liquid products. While the drug is sold as a treatment for muscle pain, an appetite suppressant, a treatment for panic attacks, and a way to stop cramps and diarrhea, every way in which users experiment with the drug has been documented to cause unwanted side effects.

Kratom acts on the opioid receptors, but it affects the receptors a bit differently than opioid painkillers. At low doses, kratom acts as a stimulant. At higher doses, it reduces pain and may produce euphoric sensations. Some users say higher doses of the drug can help reduce the effects of opioid withdrawal.

It’s extremely difficult for users to determine what a “low dose” or a “high dose” is. Because kratom is unregulated, users have no way of knowing how potent the drug is or how much of the active ingredients there are in any given batch of kratom. That makes using it dangerous, and it dispels the idea that because the drug is plant-based, it’s “safe.”

Side Effects and Emerging Safety Concerns Connected to Kratom

Because kratom use is an emerging drug trend in the U.S., data is limited as to overdose deaths, emergency room visits, and serious medical complications directly linked back to the drug. However, there have been at least 1,800 calls to poison centers made between 2011 and 2017 that were related to kratom, half of which involved serious negative consequences from taking kratom, like seizures and dangerously high blood pressure. Some have even died from using kratom, though usually in conjunction with other drugs.

Some of the side effects of using kratom include:

  • Chills
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Depression
  • Weight loss
  • Drowsiness
  • Constipation
  • Liver damage
  • Changes in urine
  • Slowed breathing
  • Severe headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle pain and aches
  • Abnormal brain function
  • Seizures, coma, and death
  • Hallucinations and delusions

The above is not a complete list, as research is ongoing. Still, the above side effects reflect just some of the experiences of people who’ve used kratom within anywhere from ten minutes to two to five hours of ingesting the drug.

Kratom Overdoses and Poisonings

It is possible to overdose on kratom, though it is still unknown how much kratom constitutes a lethal dose. According to one report, kratom has already been linked to thousands of poisonings and hundreds of deaths in the U.S., although most of the deaths involved the use of other drugs, especially opioids. Most people who experience adverse effects of kratom do get very sick from using it, but few Americans have thus far died from using just kratom alone. However, it has happened.3


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Further, some who have taken kratom to withdraw from opioids and cease opioid use have instead become dependent on kratom. In a sense, they replaced one drug with another.

Finally, some have become poisoned from taking kratom, even when they took low doses of it, because they consumed Salmonella bacteria-infected kratom. As of April 2018, 130 people in 38 states became ill with Salmonella after taking kratom. It is well known that Salmonella poisoning may be fatal, and there have been at least 35 documented deaths from Salmonella-tainted kratom. Again, because the drug is unregulated, users’ odds of purchasing Salmonella-tainted kratom are, sadly, quite high.

Treatment for Kratom Addiction

Research is still underway to learn everything possible about kratom. While the drug entered the U.S. some years ago as a supposed safe alternative to opioid pain relievers, the drug is anything but safe. People who use it and become addicted to it must seek help at qualified drug addiction treatment centers. Kratom produces unwanted side effects and is mind-altering, addictive, and dangerous. People who become hooked on it should seek treatment for their addiction and find safe ways of treating pain.


  1. NIDA. “Kratom.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022. nida.nih.gov ↩︎

  2. MC. “Kratom: Unsafe and Ineffective.” Mayo Clinic, 2022. mayoclinic.org ↩︎

  3. NYU. “Kratom Use Rare, But More Common Among People with Opioid Use Disorder.” New York University, 2021. nye.edu ↩︎