Stimulant Drug Abuse
Stimulants are psychoactive substances that cause heightened energy and alertness by amplifying the activity of certain neural signaling molecules. This class of drugs includes both legal substances, such as ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin, as well as illicit substances like cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine, all of which can be abused.
Effects of each stimulant will vary slightly by the specific substance being used; however, abusing these substances can lead to similar dangers and, in some cases, may prove fatal.
Stimulants are a widely abused class of substances, with nearly 1.6 million people aged 12 or older reporting current nonmedical use of stimulant medications, including methamphetamine. Cocaine, in particular, is one of the most widely abused illicit stimulants, with 1.5 million people 12 years or older reporting current use of cocaine in 2014 alone 1.
No matter how a stimulant is used, the user risks falling into a pattern of abuse and subsequent addiction.
Abuse of stimulants can occur via a number of different methods: oral ingestion, snorting, smoking, or even dissolving and injecting, depending on the form 2. The route of administration will determine not only the onset and intensity of effects, but also the medical risks, including the risk of developing an addiction 2.
Smoking and injection use generally produce the most rapid effects, while swallowing and snorting tend to be slower at increasing blood levels, thus producing less intense, slower onset of effects 2. Faster acting, more intense effects increase both the desirable sensations and the negative health effects of the drugs.
After repeated use, an individual’s brain will begin to grow accustomed to the higher levels of stimulation, requiring ever-increasing amounts of the drug to achieve a desired high. This phenomenon is known as tolerance, and it can develop within a few weeks of use. Attempts to overcome the mounting levels of tolerance can escalate compulsive patterns of use and increase the risk of disastrous health effects 2.
Signs and Symptoms
Each stimulant will have its own host of effects and outcomes, but many of the stimulant drugs have a number of common symptoms associated with their use. In essence, stimulant abuse causes over-excitation in the brain. This hyperstimulation can result in some notable effects including 3,4:
- Euphoric feelings.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Dangerously high body temperature.
These symptoms will last as long as the high does, but will vary in intensity according to the dose taken. If the dose is high, these symptoms may be amplified to deadly overdose levels, potentially leading to heart attack, stroke, or seizures 3,4,5,6.
In some cases, certain substances, such as crack cocaine, can even cause delirium as well as symptoms of psychosis such as paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations 7.
Effects of Stimulant Abuse
Abusing stimulants can have major short- and long-term effects on a person’s health. Even short-term use can result in serious problems like overheating, cardiovascular complications, seizures, neurotoxicity, and structural brain changes 4,5,6,8.
Negative effects and medical complications of cocaine use may include 2:
- Extreme exhaustion.
- Significant weight loss.
- Cardiovascular damage.
- Heart rhythm disturbances.
- High blood pressure.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Gastrointestinal problems.
- Impotence in males.
- Amenorrhea (absent menstrual cycle).
- Bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis B, C, and D secondary to injection use.
- Cerebral hemorrhage.
- Tremors or loss of muscle control.
Psychological and Behavioral Symptoms
The negative consequences of stimulant use are not limited to physical problems. Many psychological and behavioral consequences are commonly seen with chronic or long-term abuse 2:
- Extreme anxiety.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Almost 5,500 people died from cocaine overdose in 2014 9.
- Nearly 8.2% of all drug-related emergency department visits in 2011 involved the use of meth 10.
- The number of people reporting current nonmedical use of stimulants, including meth, was higher in 2014 than almost every year between 2005 and 2012 1.
Teen Stimulant Abuse
Stimulant abuse by teens largely involves the nonmedical use of prescription stimulant medications. In fact, among adolescents aged 12 to 17, 169,000 reported current prescription stimulant use outside of a prescription *, compared to only 39,000 who reported current cocaine use 1.
ADHD stimulant medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse may be easier for teens to come by than illicit substances like meth and cocaine. They may have a prescription from a doctor, or are able to get it from their friends who have a prescription. Often, these drugs are portrayed as “study aids” to facilitate late-night schoolwork and improved attention, but their use also extends into late-night partying due to their energizing effects.
The brain is continually developing through adolescence, and stimulant abuse during such a crucial time may have long-lasting effects that can impact neuronal maturation 11. Many adolescents don’t understand the damage that can occur as a result of stimulant abuse, and educating your teen about the risks and consequences may help them resist.
*The survey included methamphetamine in the section on nonmedical use of prescription stimulants even though most methamphetamine in the US is produced illegally. Of the 169,000 adolescents, 45,000 were abusing methamphetamine.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50).
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. Chapter 5 – Medical aspects of stimulant use disorder. Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). How do stimulants affect the brain and body?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What are the possible consequences of stimulant use and abuse?
- Riezzo, I., Fiore, C., De Carlo, D., Pascale, N., Turillazzi, E., & Fineschi, V. (2012). Side effects of cocaine abuse: multiorgan toxicity and pathological consequences. Current Medicinal Chemistry, 19(33). 5624-5646.
- S. National Library of Medicine. (2015). Methamphetamine overdose.
- Morton, A. W. (1999). Cocaine and psychatric symptoms. Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1(4). 109-113.
- Guha, P., Harraz, M. M., & Snyder, S. H. (2016). Cocaine elicits autophagic cytotoxicity via a nitric oxide-GAPDH signaling cascade. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(5), 1417-1422.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4760, DAWN Series D-39. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.
- Andersen, S. L. (2005). Stimulants and the developing brain. Trends in Pharmacological Science, 26(5). 237-243.