What Are Prescription Stimulants?

If you have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may already be using a prescription stimulant, or you may have at least heard of them. When used to treat this or other conditions for which they are necessary, prescription stimulants can be beneficial.

Most often, prescription stimulants are used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, and obesity. These medications should only be used with a prescription and under a doctor’s supervision.

Why Would Stimulants Be Prescribed?

Stimulants are prescribed for the following conditions:
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Narcolepsy
  • Depression

They can help people who have difficulty concentrating or memory issues. They are also frequently prescribed to people who deal with hyperactivity or have problems completing everyday tasks.

Both children and adults can receive prescriptions for stimulants.

Dangers of Mixing with Alcohol

Prescription stimulants are most often misused by young adults who take them in order to be able to drink more alcohol and party for longer. These individuals are under the assumption that the two will be, “canceled out”, but that’s not necessarily the case. There are risks associated mixing a depressant like alcohol and stimulants like Adderall, Concerta or Dexedrine.

Some more serious dangers include:
  • Alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose that could lead to death.
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure that could lead to a heart attack.
  • Increased aggression and behavioral changes that can lead to making poor decisions.

Students and Prescription Stimulants

Others abuse prescription stimulants as “study drugs” with the goal of getting a lot done in a short period of time, often by foregoing sleep. Many students believe they will get better grades or pass tests more easily by using these medications. This does not bear out, as students who abuse stimulants don’t perform better.

Scholastic, a resource of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, mentions that prescription stimulants can be safe when used as directed. However, teenagers and young adults are particularly at risk of becoming dependent on or addicted to these medications if they use them without a prescription.

Young adults and teens may believe that experimenting with a prescription drug, particularly one that is touted to improve academic performance, is not as dangerous as experimenting with unlawful street drugs. This is not true. Prescription stimulant abuse can lead to health issues, relationship problems, and even legal consequences if caught.

Use of prescription stimulants is popular during exam season. High schoolers may abuse them before tests like the ACT or SAT. They are frequently used during finals week by college students.

Oftentimes, people who abuse prescription stimulants as students carry this abuse over into adulthood. When they enter a stressful job market or new career, they may continue to abuse these drugs in an effort to get or stay ahead.

A September 2012 study published in Brain and Behavior says that medical students are very likely to misuse prescription stimulants amid the pressure to keep their grades up in competitive programs.
  • About 70 percent of dental or dental hygiene students misused prescription stimulants in an effort to excel academically, per the 2012 study.
  • Roughly 93.5 percent of medical students who misused prescription stimulants said they did it so they could concentrate on school. Of this percentage, 83.9 percent were male and Caucasian. They reported using a stimulant in the past or currently using one.
  • Only 2 percent of the general population between the ages of 18 and 49 is known to have misused prescription stimulants.

How Stimulants Work

Prescription stimulants work by increasing levels of a hormone called dopamine, which is associated with feeling pleasure. This is necessary for people who have ADHD, as dopamine can improve their concentration. However, it can cause people without the diagnosis to feel a sense of euphoria that rewards them for using the medication.

Are They Addictive?

Yes, regular use of stimulants can lead to addiction. As with recreational stimulant use, such as cocaine use, people begin to seek out prescription stimulants to use them compulsively. Addiction is the compulsive use of drugs despite negative consequences.

Mayo Clinic explains that some people face certain risk factors that could cause them to misuse prescription stimulants. These include:
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions.
  • Lack of information about prescription medications and their dangers.
  • Environmental factors, such as having other friends who misuse stimulants.
  • Past misuse of other substances, including tobacco or alcohol.
  • A family history of drug misuse.

Popular Brands

An October 2017 paper published in the Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology journal reports that Rhode Island-based psychiatrist Charles Bradley first noticed that amphetamines could improve behavior in hyperactive children in 1937.

Twenty years later, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) began zeroing in on symptoms relating to hyperactivity in children. The number of prescriptions for medication that deal with hyperactivity has increased dramatically since then.

In 1987, 0.6 percent of youth had a prescription for stimulants. This rose to 2.7 percent in 1997. Rates remained stable in 2002, when 2.9 percent of youth were found to have a prescription for stimulants to improve their behavior.

Some brands of prescription stimulants are better known than others. The following stimulants are approved for medicinal use:
  • Amphetamines: These include Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse, ProCentra, Evekeo, and Dyanavel XR. These medications are meant to improve concentration in people who have ADHD, and people with narcolepsy can take them during the day to stay awake.
  • Methylphenidate: This drug comes under the brand names Concerta, Daytrana (transdermal patch), Ritalin, and Ritalin LA. It ensures that norepinephrine and dopamine accumulate in the brain. The medications do this preventing the reuptake of these hormones, thus improving focus.
  • Methamphetamine: This comes under the brand name Desoxyn. Scientists are still figuring out how this medication helps people with ADHD. They know that the makeup of methamphetamine is similar to that of amphetamines and ephedrine, and that methamphetamine can increase blood pressure and suppress appetite.

Side Effects of Use

Prescription stimulants can cause a variety of side effects, even when used as directed. The following side effects may occur:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness or headaches
  • Faster heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sleeping issues

The following are potential long-term side effects:

  • Paranoia
  • Anger issues
  • Sleep disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Dependence

Symptoms of withdrawal can occur when people attempt to stop taking stimulants after taking them for a while. Dependence can form in people who legitimately take stimulants for a long time as well as those who abuse the drugs.

Treatment for Prescription Stimulant Misuse

Treatment for the misuse of stimulants is modeled after treatment methods that have helped people quit using other drugs. Here are some things you can expect:

  • Assessment from a doctor or addiction specialist: You can expect questions about how you have misused stimulants, your medical history, and other health conditions. This process might also require that you take urine or blood tests to check the levels of stimulants or other drugs in your body.
  • Withdrawal: This may involve tapering from the stimulant while under a doctor’s care. You will slowly take less of the medication until you adjust. This can prevent or mitigate symptoms of withdrawal.

    There is no FDA-approved medication to treat stimulant addiction, but other medications may be prescribed to address specific symptoms of withdrawal, such as depression or anxiety.

  • Therapy: This can be individual, group, or family therapy.
  • Aftercare: Crucial to adjusting to a life free of drugs, aftercare may include continued attendance at group sessions or individual therapy that helps you stay on track. An aftercare plan often involves lifestyle adjustments, such as getting regular sleep and exercise, eating a balanced diet, and building a strong support network.

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