What are stimulants?
Prescription stimulants increase—or "stimulate"—activities and processes in the body. This increased activity can boost alertness, attention, and energy. It also can raise a person's blood pressure and make their heart beat faster. When prescribed by a doctor for a specific health condition, they can be relatively safe and effective. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking prescription stimulants. These risks increase when these drugs are abused. Taking someone else's prescription drugs or taking the drugs to get “high” can have serious health risks.
There are two commonly abused types of stimulants: amphetamines and methylphenidate. In the past, stimulants were used to treat a variety of conditions, including asthma and other breathing problems, obesity, and health problems that affect your nervous system. Now, because the risk for abuse and addiction is better understood, doctors prescribe them less often and only for a few health conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy (a sleep disorder), and, in some instances, depression that has not responded to other treatments.
How are stimulants abused?
Prescription stimulants are normally taken in pill form, but some people who abuse them crush the tablets and snort or inject them, which can cause additional problems because ingredients in the tablets can block small blood vessels which can cause damage to the heart and other organs.
People abuse stimulants by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:
- Taking someone else’s prescription stimulant medication.
- Taking a prescription stimulant medication in a way other than prescribed.
- Taking the prescription stimulant to get high.
Stimulants have been abused as an "academic performance enhancement" (such as to stay up all night cramming for an exam). However, studies have found that stimulants do not increase learning or thinking ability when taken by people who have not been diagnosed with ADHD.
How do prescription stimulants affect the brain?
The brain is made up of nerve cells that send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Common stimulants, such as amphetamines (e.g., Adderall) and methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin), have chemical structures that are similar to certain key brain neurotransmitters including dopamine and norepinephrine. Stimulants boost the effects of these chemicals in the brain and body.
When doctors prescribe stimulants, they start with low doses and increase them slowly until they find the appropriate dose for the patient to treat the condition for which they are prescribed. However, when taken in doses and in ways other than those prescribed, like snorting or injecting, stimulants can increase the dopamine in the brain very quickly. This changes the normal communication between brain cells, producing a ‘high’ while also increasing the risk for dangerous side effects and, over time, for addiction.
What are the other effects of stimulant abuse?
Stimulant abuse can be extremely dangerous. Taking high doses of a stimulant can cause:
- Increased blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dangerously high body temperatures
- Decreased sleep
- Lack of interest in eating, which can lead to poor nutrition
- Intense anger or paranoia (feeling like someone is going to harm you even though they aren’t)
- Risk for seizures and stroke at high doses
Stimulants should not be mixed with medicines used to treat depression or over-the-counter cold medicines that contain decongestants. These mixtures increase the risk for developing dangerously high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
Can you get addicted to stimulants?
Yes, abusing stimulants can lead to addiction. Addiction is when a person continues to seek out and takes the drug even though they know it is damaging their health and their life.
When a person who regularly abuses stimulants stops taking them, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. Stimulant withdrawal can cause:
- An inability to feel pleasure
- Thoughts of suicide
- Anxiety and irritability
- Feeling very tired, lack of energy, and changes in sleep patterns
- Intense drug cravings
Treatment of mood symptoms may help lessen these effects.
Can you die if you abuse stimulants?
Yes, it is possible to die from stimulant abuse. Taking high doses of a stimulant can raise a person’s body temperature and blood pressure to dangerous levels and make the heart beat irregularly. This can lead to seizures, heart failure, and death.