What Does Acid do to You? The Effects of LSD (Acid)
Is LSD (“Acid”) Harmful?
D-lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or “acid,” is a hallucinogenic drug made from lysergic acid, a natural chemical found in a fungus that grows on rye called Claviceps purpurea. LSD was first created in 1938 by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffmann who was searching for new drugs to stimulate patients’ circulation and breathing.
Dr. Hoffmann discovered LSD’s striking mental effects in 1943, and the drug was marketed under the brand name Delysid from 1947 to 1966. It was used to enhance the effectiveness of psychotherapy and to treat psychiatric illnesses such as depression and alcohol addiction. Starting in the 1950s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the Army conducted experiments to find out if LSD could be a useful tool for exerting “mind control” on enemies 1.
Recreational use of LSD began in the 1960s and spread rapidly until the drug was banned in 1970 by categorizing it as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. As a schedule I drug, LSD has no recognized medical use and those caught in possession of it face serious legal penalties.
LSD is generally considered to be less harmful than other drugs like alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, and overdoses are rare 2,3.45. LSD can also cause persistent psychological problems that cause significant distress in the user.
As with many drugs of abuse, young men may appear to be disproportionately impacted by the dangers of LSD—of the 5,000 emergency room visits in 2011, 84% were male and 70% were between 18 and 24 years old.5
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LSD’s Short-Term Effects
People generally use acid and other classic hallucinogens such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and peyote (mescaline) for recreational and spiritual reasons 2.
These drugs are also known as “psychedelics” and produce temporary symptoms similar to psychosis that typically last between 6 and 10 hours 2. These altered perceptions and sense of unreality are commonly called a “trip” and may result in 3,7:
- Visual hallucinations.
- Amplification of sensations like sounds and smells.
- Distorted sense of time.
- Blending of senses, such as “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors.
- Sensation of the mind leaving the body.
- Impulsive behavior.
- Quickly shifting emotions.
- Mystical or religious sensations.
LSD Side Effects
The side effects of acid are similar to other hallucinogens. LSD is active mainly at certain serotonin receptor sub-types in the brain and body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s “fight or flight” reaction 3.
LSD Physical Risks
By interfering with normal serotonin signaling, LSD produces both the short-term effects mentioned above as well as the following negative side effects 4; 5:
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
- Elevated body temperature.
- Loss of appetite.
- Dry mouth.
- Excessive sweating.
LSD Psychological Risks
In addition to presenting physical risks, LSD has powerful effects on users’ mental states and can produce traumatic emotional reactions in some individuals, also called a “bad trip”. Symptoms of a bad trip can feel overwhelming to the user and may include the following 3:
- Severe anxiety.
- Panic attacks.
- Rapidly changing emotions.
- Feeling of detachment from one’s own mind and body.
- Losing a grip on reality.
- Fear of dying.
- Aggressive or violent behaviors.
- Suicidal thoughts.
Taking acid in an uncontrolled setting or taking a larger dose than expected increases the danger of having a bad trip 2; 6. LSD abusers with a personal or family history of psychosis or other severe psychiatric disorders are also thought to be at greater risk of having a bad trip or developing other psychological problems 7. Abusers having a bad trip can behave in unpredictable ways that present a danger to themselves and others.
Because LSD is one of the most potent drugs known, extremely small doses of this drug can produce noticeable effects. A “typical” dose of LSD ranges between 75 and 150 micrograms (millionths of a gram) 2. This is about 3,000 times less than the amount of aspirin in a regular-strength tablet. Because LSD is made illegally, there are large differences in the amount of drug in different batches, making it very easy to accidentally take a dose larger than intended. The greatest danger of taking too much LSD is that it will trigger a bad trip or other psychological trauma 6.
Despite the psychological danger posed by LSD overdose, this drug has a low toxicity, and the amount needed to produce a dangerous physical reaction is very large. In fact, there has never been a recorded case of a human dying from an LSD overdose, although it has proven fatal in studies on animals 1. In the rare cases that people have accidentally ingested massive overdoses of LSD, the symptoms have included 2:
- Dangerously elevated body temperature.
- Gastric bleeding (bleeding in the stomach).
- Difficulty breathing.
Long-Term Effects of Abusing LSD
People who develop HPPD, also known as “flashbacks,” have repeated experiences with symptoms similar to an LSD trip even when they have not taken the drug again. These symptoms include hallucinations and other visual distortions such as halos or trails on moving objects 7.
Symptoms of HPPD can last from weeks to years before resolving on their own, and there is no widely recognized treatment 8. In some cases, HPPD is severe, long-lasting, and has a significant negative effect on other aspects of a user’s life.
The distressing effects of a bad trip normally ease when the drug wears off; however, it can persist for weeks or months in some users 2. These long-term side effects are known by the clinical terms “Persistent Psychosis” and “Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD)” 5.
Such complications are rare, but can happen after using LSD just one time. Individuals who abuse LSD over a long period 1 or have a history of abusing multiple drugs may also be at greater risk of developing these conditions8.
Individuals suffering from Persistent Psychosis can have visual disturbances, disorganized thinking, paranoia, and mood disturbances that continue long after the last use of the drug. While this condition is not well understood 7, symptoms are sometimes managed with antidepressants or antipsychotics.
The scientific evidence indicates that LSD does not produce dependence and is not addictive. However, tolerance to the effects of LSD develops very quickly, meaning that frequent use of the drug will result in diminished effects over time. Essentially, the same dose won’t create the same “high.”
Some users may increase the dose of LSD they take to overcome this tolerance, which can increase the risk of experiencing the negative effects discussed above.
Compulsive LSD users may also develop a pattern of problematic use defined as a hallucinogen use disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Signs include:
- Trying unsuccessfully to stop using LSD.
- Spending a lot of time in obtaining and using LSD.
- Using LSD instead of fulfilling major personal or professional obligations.
- Craving LSD.
- Continuing to use even when doing so is creating interpersonal issues and/or mental/physical health issues.
- Giving up hobbies in favor of using.
- Needing to take more and more LSD to get “high.”
Despite the lack of evidence supporting a classic picture of physiologic dependence and addiction development, people can still be profoundly and negatively impacted by frequent LSD use, and could benefit from some sort of substance abuse treatment intervention.
LSD Withdrawal Treatment
Even in individuals who have taken LSD chronically for a long period of time, there are usually no withdrawal symptoms when they stop, and there are no FDA-approved medications available to treat LSD withdrawal 7. However, the intense effects LSD has on perceptions, moods, and thoughts may cause ongoing psychological distress that may lead to impaired functioning in the user’s life, and drug treatment programs or professional psychological support may be beneficial to abusers who want to stop.
Little is known about treating hallucinogen abuse, and more research is needed. Currently, there are no specific treatments for LSD abuse, and general strategies such as counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy are used to change problematic behaviors and support sobriety.
- Mucke, H. A. (2016). From Psychiatry to Flower Power and Back Again: The Amazing Story of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Assay Drug Dev Technol. doi:10.1089/adt.2016.747
- Passie, T., Halpern, J. H., Stichtenoth, D. O., Emrich, H. M., & Hintzen, A. (2008). The pharmacology of lysergic acid diethylamide: a review. CNS Neurosci Ther, 14(4), 295-314. doi:10.1111/j.1755-5949.2008.00059.x
- Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). LSD. Retrieved from http://www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/drugs/lsd.asp
- Mayo Clinic. (2014). Drug Addiction. Diseases and Conditions. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/basics/symptoms/con-20020970
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/director:
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2013). D-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Retrieved from http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/lsd.pdf
- Johnson, M., Richards, W., & Griffiths, R. (2008). Human hallucinogen research: guidelines for safety. J Psychopharmacol, 22(6), 603-620. doi:10.1177/0269881108093587
- Litjens, R. P., Brunt, T. M., Alderliefste, G. J., & Westerink, R. H. (2014). Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder and the serotonergic system: a comprehensive review including new MDMA-related clinical cases. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol, 24(8), 1309-1323. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2014.05.008