Prescription Drugs Blog Posts

Prescription drugs can be just as dangerous to your health as drugs that are made illegally. Learn how they can affect your brain and body.

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Mind Matters: The Body's Response to Prescription Stimulants

Hi there! Mind Matters (formerly referred to as Mind Over Matter) is a series that explores the ways that different drugs affect your brain, body, and life. In this issue, we are going to talk about prescription stimulants.

View the Mind Matters Teacher's Guide.

What are prescription stimulants?

Prescription stimulants are a type of medicine that doctors give people to help them with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) or serious sleep problems. You might have heard of stimulants like Adderall® and Ritalin®. They are usually given as pills.

If you have ADHD, prescription stimulants can make you more alert, increase your attention, help you focus, and give you more energy. 

Why do people misuse prescription stimulants?

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Ways people misuse prescription medications: not following the instructions from their doctor; taking pills not prescribed to them; taking them to get high.

When people who need these medications follow their doctor’s instructions and take the right amount of medicine, they can feel better and focus better in school.

But some people misuse these stimulants to get high, feel more alert, or to try to get better grades. If you do not have ADHD, there are no studies to show these medicines improve your grades, but there could be many other reasons these young people are not doing well in school.

Learn more on our Drug Facts page: How many teens misuse prescription stimulants?

How do prescription stimulants work?

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Illustration of two molecules, dopamine and norepinephrine

Prescription stimulants change the way the brain works by acting on the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine makes you want to take the drug again and again. Norepinephrine gets your brain and body ready for action. 

How do prescription stimulants affect your brain and body?

Prescription stimulants can have uncomfortable side effects, even when prescribed by a doctor. When people misuse them, they can be especially dangerous.

When doctors prescribe stimulants, they start in low doses and slowly increase the dose until someone feels better. When people misuse stimulants, they sometimes take high doses right away, which is dangerous.

Misusing stimulants can cause:

  • high blood pressure
  • fast heartbeat
  • high body temperature
  • sleeping problems
  • angry reactions
  • heart problems

Learn more: Can you overdose or die if you misuse prescription stimulants?

Can you become addicted to prescription stimulants?

Yes, you can. Over time, misusing stimulants can change the way your brain works, and you can become addicted. Addiction means you want to continue to take a drug even if bad things start happening to you — like getting poor grades or having problems with family and friends.

You can also go into withdrawal if you stop taking them all of a sudden. This can be unpleasant, painful, and make you feel really bad. It makes it very hard to stop taking the drug.

This is why it is very important that people take stimulants exactly as their doctor says. 

People who can’t stop taking the drug could be addicted. It doesn’t matter where you live or how smart you are. There is no way to predict who will become addicted.

The right treatment can help someone who is addicted feel better and stop misusing prescription stimulants, but treatment is hard work and it can take many years to recover from addiction. The best approach is to never start using the drug in the first place.

What if someone I know needs help?

If you think a friend or family member has a problem with drugs, talk to an adult you trust—like a parent, coach, or teacher—right away. Remember, treatment is available and people can get better.

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