NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Drug Facts

Prescription Stimulant Medications (Amphetamines)

What Are Stimulants (Amphetamines)?

 Frenzied car lights, moving at a fast speed

Also known as: skippy, the smart drug, vitamin r, bennies, black beauties, roses, hearts, speed, or uppers

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 safe and effective, but when abused, they can have dangerous health effects.

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.

Stimulants
Type Conditions They Treat
  • Amphetamines (Adderall and Dexedrine)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta)
  • ADHD
  • Narcolepsy (sleep disorder)
  • Depression

Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone abuses them. And find out what others are doing to prevent teen prescription drug abuse.

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.

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 prescribed the medication for treating 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 fully 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 feeling of intense excitement and happiness, while increasing the risk for addiction.

Learn more about how the brain works and what happens when a person abuses drugs.

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) with repeated use
  • 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 can lead to dangerously high blood pressure and can cause the heart to beat irregularly.

Can You Get Addicted to Stimulants?

Yes, abusing stimulants can lead to addiction. Addiction is when a person seeks out and takes the drug over and over 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 to dangerous levels and make the heart beat irregularly. This can lead to seizures, heart failure, and death.

How Many Teens Abuse Stimulants?

NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study collects data on teen abuse of amphetamines in general, as well as Adderall and Ritalin:

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2014 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Amphetamine Lifetime 6.70 10.60 12.10
Past Year 4.30 7.60 8.10
Past Month 2.10 3.70 3.80
Adderall Past Year 1.30 4.60 6.80
Ritalin Past Year 0.90 1.80 1.80

For the most recent statistics on teen drug abuse, see results from NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study
.

What Should I Do If Someone I Know Needs Help?

If you or a friend are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don't just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by).

If you need information on treatment and where you can find it, you can call:

For more information on how to help a friend or loved one, visit our Have a Drug Problem, Need Help? page.