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Stimulant Abuse Signs

Stimulant abuse symptoms include rapid speech, high energy levels, excessive sweating, agitation, twitching, reduced appetite and weight loss, and mood swings, among others.

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Stimulant is an umbrella term for any drug that increases activity in the central nervous system. These can be widely available substances like caffeine, legal prescription medications like Adderall, nicotine, as well as illegal drugs like methamphetamines, cocaine, and synthetic cathinones like bath salts. [1]

These drugs vary widely in their effects and impacts on the body, but they are frequently the subject of abuse because they can provide euphoria and enhance physical and cognitive capacities temporarily. Stimulant abuse is very risky and can lead to permanent health complications and increase the risk of life-threatening effects. 

Signs & Symptoms of Stimulant Abuse

Stimulant abuse symptoms include rapid speech, high energy levels, excessive sweating, agitation, twitching, reduced appetite and weight loss, and mood swings, among others.[1]

If you are worried your loved one is abusing a stimulant like cocaine or meth, here are some signs of stimulant abuse to look out for:[1],[2]

  • Abnormal levels of excitement
  • Excessive euphoria
  • Speaking very rapidly and changing subjects quickly
  • Pacing and overall restlessness
  • Sweating profusely 
  • Flushed skin
  • Risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors, such as risky sexual activity
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Twitching and muscle spasms
  • Poor decision-making
  • Anxiety
  • Anger and aggressiveness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Hair loss

People who misuse stimulants may do so in a “binge and crash” pattern which involves taking repeated doses of the stimulant, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, in a short period of time to keep the high going. After that, they may experience as “crash” or “come down,” in which they experience fatigue and depression. They may sleep for a few days to recover.

What Are the Dangers of Misusing Stimulants?

Stimulants can be very dangerous because of their impact on the central nervous system and the subsequent effects on the cardiorespiratory system. These risks exist in addition to the general risks that accompany substance abuse, such as having toxic levels of a foreign substance in the body and potential for overdose. [3]

Physical Risks

Abuse of legal or prescription stimulants, and use or abuse of illegal stimulants, can be associated with the following physical risks:[1],[2],[4]

  • Chest pain related to angina
  • Gastrointestinal complications
  • Hypertension
  • Irregular heart rate
  • A major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke
  • Fever and rise in body temperature
  • Convulsions
  • Seizure
  • Loss of consciousness and coma
  • Death

Psychological & Behavioral Effects

Stimulant abuse can have marked effects on your mind and behavior as well, including these issues:[4]

  • Insomnia
  • Anger and aggression
  • Irritability 
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Depression
  • Mood fluctuations and inability to regulate mood
  • Risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Delusions of grandeur

Stimulant Toxicity or Overdose

One of the most significant risks associated with stimulant abuse is the chance of overdose or toxicity. This can occur when a dose is too high for the body to process, and the drugs overwhelm the system. However, unlike central nervous system depressants, people can experience life-threatening consequences even when they don’t take a toxic dose. This is because of the stress stimulants put on the cardiovascular system.[3]

Symptoms of a stimulant overdose include the following:[3]

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Convulsions
  • Disorientation
  • Stroke

If left untreated, stimulant overdose can lead to coma and death. If an overdose is suspected, immediately call 911. Professional medical care is needed, and prompt treatment can reduce the likelihood of severe or permanent damage.

In overdose, unless there is medical intervention, high fever, convulsions, and cardiovascular collapse may precede death. Because accidental death is partially due to the effects of stimulants on the body’s cardiovascular and temperature-regulating systems, physical exertion increases the hazards of stimulant use. 

How to Recognize Stimulant Addiction

Chronic stimulant abuse can cause tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

These are some indicators of a stimulant addiction:[2]

  • Excessive preoccupation with getting and using stimulants
  • Lying, stealing, or manipulating others in order to gain access to stimulants
  • Visiting multiple doctors to receive prescriptions for stimulants
  • Purchasing illegal stimulants or prescription stimulants from another individual who is not a doctor and did not prescribe them to you
  • Perpetually misusing stimulants
  • Multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop using stimulants
  • Financial difficulties due to purchasing stimulants
  • Loss of employment and social relationships due to a preoccupation with stimulant use
  • Reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they discontinue use

If someone you know demonstrates any of these behaviors, and particularly if they display two or more, they may be addicted to stimulants and need help. 

An addiction can be associated with stigmas and cause shame, leading individuals to attempt to mask their condition. However, stimulant addiction is not a weakness or something to be embarrassed about. It’s a chronic and complex condition characterized by compulsive use despite negative consequences, and it requires comprehensive treatment.

Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms

Prolonged stimulant abuse can lead to dependence, which means that the body has grown accustomed to the presence of the drug and needs it to function. Those who are dependent on stimulants and suddenly quit or lower their dose will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. 

Stimulant withdrawal symptoms may include the following:[2],[4]

It’s best to have medical supervision during the withdrawal process to ensure your safety and reduce your chances of relapse during detox. 

  • Feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nervousness
  • Agitation
  • Dehydration
  • Chills or fever
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Paranoia and hallucinations
  • Loss of memory
  • Slowed movements and thoughts or repetitive movements
  • Increased appetite

It’s best to have medical supervision during the withdrawal process to ensure your safety and reduce your chances of relapse during detox. 

Sometimes, a tapered approach to withdrawal is recommended, in which the average dose is gradually reduced. If it’s a prescribed stimulant, this approach may be employed. 

Medications may be helpful during stimulant withdrawal. Studies have shown promise in using medications to treat cocaine dependence, and research is ongoing into medications that may assist with methamphetamine withdrawal. [6]

A Need for Treatment

If you or someone you know abuses stimulants, it’s never too late—or too early—to receive comprehensive addiction treatment. The sooner you enter a rehab program, the sooner you can begin to address the underlying factors that caused stimulant abuse in the first place.

There are many levels of care available including:

  • Inpatient rehab: You live at the treatment center for the duration of the program, recieving 24/7 care and support.
  • Partial hospitalization: You live at home and attend therapy for up to 30 hours per week in a hospital setting.
  • Intensive outpatient: You attend counseling for between 9 and 20 hours per week and return home during non-treatment hours.
  • Standard outpatient: The most flexible and least intensive option, you attend a few hours of care per week.

With the right treatment and support, you can begin to live a fulfilling life in recovery without threat of overdose or other harm due to substance abuse.

Updated December 1, 2023
Resources
  1. Stimulants. (April 2020). Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration.
  2. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association. (2013).
  3. Amphetamine Toxicity. (November 2022). StatPearls.
  4. How Stimulants Affect the Brain and Behavior. (2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  5. Stimulant Use Disorder Treatment. (2020). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  6. The Search for Medications to Treat Stimulant Dependence. (June 2008). Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.
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