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Stimulants: Examples, Uses & Side Effects

Stimulants are a highly addictive category of drugs that increase alertness, energy, and focus. They may be illegally obtained or legally prescribed. Misuse of these drugs can be very dangerous, addictive, and sometimes deadly.

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What Are Stimulants?

What are stimulants?

Quick Answer

Stimulants are drugs that speed up the body’s systems. Both prescription and illicit forms are available.

Stimulants, sometimes referred to as “uppers,” are drugs that work directly on the brain. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says many of these drugs are placed in Schedule I, meaning they have a high potential for abuse and no medical purpose. But others, including caffeine, don’t require a prescription and are sold over the counter.[1]

Key Facts About Stimulants

Key Facts

  • About 3.7 million people misused prescription stimulant drugs (like Adderall) in 2021.[2]
  • About 2.5 million people used the illicit stimulant methamphetamine in 2021.[3]
  • Of people who misuse stimulants, about 28% do so to stay awake. More than 26% use them to boost concentration.[4]
  • Stimulants were involved in more than 30,000 overdose deaths in 2019.[5]
  • Commonly abused stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and Ritalin.

Effects of Stimulants

The impact of stimulants varies from drug to drug. But in general, they cause similar problems when abused. 

Common stimulant side effects include the following:[1]

  • Higher energy
  • Increased focus 
  • More talkative 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Euphoria 
  • Nervousness 
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Faster heart rate

The most commonly prescribed stimulants are based on compounds that affect the brain’s dopamine pathways. These cause a euphoric feeling and can be extremely addictive. These drugs have different molecular structures, but they function in similar ways.

Adderall

Adderall is the most popular of the ADHD medications. In the United States, it is the most commonly prescribed amphetamine. It was first approved in 1960.

Almost 7% of American adults use prescription stimulants, and about 2% misuse these drugs.[12] Up to 20% of college students abuse prescription stimulants like Adderall.[13]

Adderall is commonly available as a tablet or capsule. When abused, it may be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or injected.

In the short term, it can produce high body temperatures and an irregular heartbeat. Long-term use can cause heart problems, anger, paranoia, and psychosis.

Dexedrine

Dexedrine is typically prescribed to treat ADHD. The military once used it to help special forces maintain energy and focus during combat. It has been used in the United States since 1976.

Side effects of Dexedrine include loss of appetite, weight loss, headache, dizziness, tremors, and irregular heart rate.[14]  It can contribute to hyperactivity and affect impulse control.

Dexedrine can cause new mental health symptoms or make psychosis symptoms worse, especially for people with a history of depression, bipolar disorder, or mental illness. Overdoses of Dexedrine can be fatal.

Ritalin 

Ritalin is commonly prescribed to treat hyperactivity in children. Available since 1955, it has an effect that is similar to that associated with amphetamines but milder.

Ritalin is commonly available as a liquid, tablet, capsule, or chewable tablet. It can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, injected, or chewed when misused.

It produces a sense of alertness, increasing attention and energy. Students use it to cram for exams, improve performance, or experience a euphoric high.

Side effects of Ritalin include sleeplessness, nervousness, decreased appetite, and stomach upset. It can trigger a condition called Raynaud’s syndrome, where the fingers and toes get less blood. Some people experience hallucinations when they take Ritalin.

There is a high potential to become dependent on Ritalin. Long term, it can create heart problems, psychosis, anger, and paranoia.

Concerta

Concerta is a newer stimulant prescribed since 2000 to treat ADHD. It is a long-acting drug, whereas Ritalin is a short-acting drug. The effects of Concerta last longer, up to 12 hours.

This is a popular drug that is often used recreationally by teens. Adolescents may get the drug from a friend who has a valid prescription. The pills are typically crushed and then snorted for a stronger effect.

Side effects of Concerta abuse include disrupted sleep, vision disturbances, and stroke.

There is a high probability of becoming dependent on Concerta, abusing the drug, and becoming addicted to it.

Desoxyn

Desoxyn is a prescription medication for obesity. It can also be used to treat ADHD. This drug’s active ingredient is methamphetamine, and it has been available in the U.S. since 1947.

Desoxyn is commonly swallowed, snorted, smoked, and injected. Due to its extremely addictive nature, it is rarely prescribed, and prescriptions cannot be automatically refilled.

Short-term use creates increased alertness and decreased appetite. Long-term use can trigger anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and mood problems. Continued use can lead to paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and intense skin itching.

Withdrawal symptoms from Concerta often include anxiety, depression, and tiredness.

Ephedrine 

Ephedrine is prescribed to dilate the bronchioles. It helps asthma patients by providing relief from wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

It can also be used as an appetite suppressant in treating obesity. In some cases, ephedrine may be used to prevent low blood pressure or to treat ADHD.

Side effects of ephedrine may include a sensation of spinning, nausea, nervousness, dizziness, headache, and anxiety. Some people experience rapid or irregular heartbeat, chest pain, or discomfort.

Provigil 

Provigil is a medication prescribed for narcolepsy. The generic version is modafinil. Teens may use this drug nonmedically to stay up all night studying for a test.

Common side effects of Provigil are feelings of nervousness, anxiety, trouble sleeping, dizziness, headache, and nausea. Some people experience a rapid heartbeat, depression, constipation, and tremors. Serious side effects include severe rashes, vomiting, and fever.

Mental health side effects can develop with long-term modafinil use, such as hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Vyvanse 

Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine dimesylate) is a prescription stimulant that may be prescribed for ADHD. Vyvanse can also be prescribed for binge eating disorder. It was approved in 2007.

Studies show that about 31% of college students in the United States use Vyvanse and other stimulants.[15] The drug has a high potential for abuse, especially for people who want to lose weight, stay focused, and increase their energy levels.

Vyvanse use has been connected with severe health problems as well as severe dependence. Side effects include increased blood pressure, augmented heart rate, physical exhaustion, insomnia, and loss of appetite.

After experiencing a high, a crash generally follows with symptoms like agitation, depression, muscle aches, sleepiness, and increased appetite. In severe cases, people may experience hallucinations, agitation, and seizures.

Are Stimulants Addictive?

Stimulants cause persistent brain changes that can impair your ability to regulate drug use. Take too much, or take stimulants for too long, and you can develop a stimulant use disorder. 

To diagnose a stimulant use disorder, doctors look for a series of behaviors, including the following:[16]

  • Taking more than intended
  • Trying to quit or lower the dose and failing
  • Craving drugs
  • Failing to meet obligations
  • Using stimulants when it’s hazardous to do so

If you’re showing these signs, or you think you’ve lost control of your stimulant use, talk to your doctor. 

Stimulant Addiction Statistics 

  • About 5.2 million people abuse cocaine every year.[17]
  • About 2.5 million people use methamphetamine every year.[17]
  • In 2020, more than 77,000 people enrolled in treatment citing methamphetamine as their primary drug of choice.[18]
An estimated 1.5 individuals had a stimulant use disorder in the past year
Approximately 1.6 million people engaged in past-month methamphetamine use
About 1.8 million people engaged in past-month cocaine use
https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt39443/2021NSDUHFFRRev010323.pdf

Symptoms of Stimulant Addiction 

All stimulants are different and capable of causing unique symptoms. But people who abuse stimulants can display physical, behavioral, and mental health symptoms. Here’s what that might look like:[1,10,12]

Physical Behavioral Mental 
Weight loss Increasing isolation Anxiety 
High blood pressurePoor performance at work or school Mood swings 
Withdrawal symptoms Increasing aggression Depression 
Anxiety Alternating energy and exhaustion Intense focus on drugs 

If you experience these symptoms, talk to your doctor about your stimulant use and abuse. A treatment program could help you stop abusing these drugs for good.

Short-Term & Long-Term Effects of Stimulant Addiction

Stimulant abuse has a significant impact on your physical and mental health. The longer the abuse continues, the more damage is done. 

Heart disease is a major complication of stimulant abuse. Of people hospitalized with heart failure, close to 2% have a diagnosis of active stimulant abuse.[19] Many more people have heart problems for which they never seek help. 

Mental health issues are also common in people who abuse stimulants. Anxiety, depression, and psychosis are all side effects of stimulants. And researchers say people with substance abuse issues are an almost fivefold increased risk of developing dementia.[20] 

These other short-term and long-term effects are common:[16]

Short-Term EffectsLong-Term Effects
Job loss Bankruptcy 
Financial distressCareer or educational loss 
Relationship issues Loss of custody of children 

Stimulant Addiction Treatment 

Stimulant addiction treatment programs are effective. Enrolling in them could give you the tools you need to quit using drugs and live a healthier life. These components could be part of your treatment program:

Stimulant Detox

A medication detox program is much more effective than attempting to quit cold turkey. A program like this can help your body transition from intoxication to sobriety slowly at a safe pace. You can avoid some of the most significant withdrawal symptoms when using a detox program. 

Most detox programs are performed on an inpatient basis. You’ll be removed from any triggers and temptations that surround you at home. Staff will help you stay calm and comfortable during the process. 

What Medication Is Used to Treat Stimulant Addiction?

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs are used to help people overcome addictions to opioids and alcohol. Unfortunately, no such medication can assist with stimulants. 

Your team might use antidepressants to help ease mental health concerns. But no pill or injection can help you deal with drug cravings. 

Individual Therapy Sessions 

Working on a one-on-one basis with a therapist can help you identify your drug use triggers and develop relapse prevention skills. Private sessions can help you feel comfortable opening up and discussing your very private questions and concerns. Your doctor might also use family therapy sessions to bring your support system into the process, repairing relationships that were damaged by addiction. 

Group Therapy 

A group therapy program can help you learn from your peers in recovery. These sessions can sometimes include a role-playing element, so you can practice your skills in real-time with others in recovery. You can also practice how you will respond to triggers in group therapy sessions. 

Telehealth Treatment 

Some people benefit from therapy sessions conducted via computer or phone. A telehealth appointment can keep you connected with treatment when you’re done with inpatient care, even if you live far away from any qualified treatment providers. 

Stimulant Withdrawal 

After a long period of drug addiction, you can develop withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit suddenly. 

Common stimulant withdrawal symptoms include the following:[16]

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia 
  • Cognitive impairment 
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Loss of energy
  • Confusion 
  • Paranoia 
  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Drug cravings 
  • Hypersexuality 
  • Impaired sexual function 
  • Psychological distress

Finding Treatment for Stimulant Addiction 

If you’re struggling with your stimulant use and abuse, talk to someone you trust. Make an appointment with your doctor. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with a doctor, talk to a friend or family member. Together, you can find treatment for stimulant addiction that’s right for you. 

You can also reach out for help today. Qualified treatment providers are ready to guide you through the recovery process. 

Updated October 6, 2023
Resources
  1. Stimulants. Drug Enforcement Administration. Published April 2020. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  2. What is the scope of prescription drug misuse in the United States. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 2020. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  3. What is the scope of methamphetamine use in the United States. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published October 2019. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  4. Lipari, R.N., Williams, M. and Van Horn, S.L. Why do adults misuse prescription drugs? The CBHSQ Report. Published July 27, 2017. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  5. Stimulant deaths on the rise, compounded by rise in synthetic opioids. National Institute for Health Care Management. Published May 13, 2021. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  6. Drug abuse statistics. National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  7. Lappin J, Darke S, Farrell M. Methamphetamine use and future risk for Parkinson’s disease: Evidence and clinical implications. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2018;187:134-140.
  8. Other drugs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published May 12, 2023. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  9. van Amsterdam J, Pennings E, van den Brink W. Fatal and non-fatal health incidents related to recreational ecstasy use. J Psychopharmacol. 2020;34(6):591-599.
  10. Commonly used drug charts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published August 20, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  11. MDMA (ecstasy/molly). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published June 2020. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  12. Compton WM, Han B, Blanco C, Johnson K, Jones CM. Prevalence and correlates of prescription stimulant use, misuse, use disorders, and motivations for misuse among adults in the United States. Am J Psychiatry. 2018;175(8):741-755.
  13. Kennedy S. Raising awareness about prescription and stimulant abuse in college students through on-campus community involvement projects. J Undergrad Neurosci Educ. 2018;17(1):A50-A53.
  14. Dexedrine prescribing information. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Published March 2007. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  15. Sepúlveda DR, Thomas LM, McCabe SE, Cranford JA, Boyd CJ, Teter CJ. Misuse of prescribed stimulant medication for ADHD and associated patterns of substance use: preliminary analysis among college students. J Pharm Pract. 2011;24(6):551-560.
  16. Treatment of Stimulant Use Disorders. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-06-01-001 Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020
  17. Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published October 2021. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  18. Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS): 2020. Admissions to and Discharges from Publicly Funded Substance Use Treatment Facilities. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Published October 2022. Accessed July 3, 2023.
  19. Shetty S, Malik A, Ali A, Yang Y, Briasoulis A, Alvarez P. Characteristics, trends, outcomes, and costs of stimulant-related acute heart failure hospitalizations in the United States. International Journal of Cardiology. 2021;331:158-163.
  20. Tzeng N, Chien W, Chung C, Chang H, Kao Y, Liu Y. Association between amphetamine-related disorders and dementia-a nationwide cohort study in Taiwan. Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology. 2020;7(8): 1284-1295.
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