Stimulants Overview

Stimulants are a class of drugs that increase the activity of the central nervous system. Some stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are prescription drugs used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Other stimulants include illegal drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine or ecstasy.

Stimulant drugs are one of the most abused classes of drugs in the United States, ranking 3rd behind marijuana and prescription drugs.1 The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that at least 14% of Americans have tried cocaine at least once in their life and at least 8.5% have tried an amphetamine such as Adderall without having a prescription.

While there are differences between each stimulant, stimulant abuse in general is associated with a short-lived, intense high, followed by a crash, where the user feels depressed and may crave the drug.

Cocaine

Cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in the leaves of the coca plant, indigenous to South America. While it is occasionally used as a topical anesthetic for surgeries due to its numbing effect, it is most often encountered on the street as a dangerous and addicting stimulant.

It is available on the street under several names such as “coke,” “blow,” “nose candy,” and “yayo,” usually as a white powder. Most users choose to snort it, however it is easily dissolved in water and injected into a vein. Powdered cocaine cannot be smoked however it can be converted into crack cocaine, a smokable form of the drug.

Crack Cocaine

A special form of cocaine, known as “crack” or “rock,” is made by adding baking soda to cocaine and heating the mixture up.2 This forms a solid rock that can be smoked, often in a pipe called a “crack pipe.” Compared to powdered cocaine, crack cocaine is significantly cheaper.

In many ways, crack cocaine is even more dangerous than powdered cocaine. Its low cost makes it more accessible, and because smoking it causes the effects to be felt immediately, crack has been shown be more addictive than powdered cocaine.

Effects of Cocaine

Cocaine is associated with an intense high, where the user feels focused, confident and may engage in risky behavior such as stealing, gambling or unprotected sex. It also carries a significant amount of side effects, listed below:3

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Panic/anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Long term use may be associated with the following:

  • Blood vessel damage
  • Weight loss
  • Depression
  • Liver, kidney and lung damage

How long it takes to feel the effects of cocaine and how long they last depend on the way it was taken. When cocaine is smoked or injected, the effects are felt almost instantly. When snorted, it may take minutes to feel the effects.

Amphetamines

Amphetamines are a class of prescription stimulants used for several legitimate medical conditions. Some of the following medical uses of amphetamines are listed below:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Obesity
  • Narcolepsy

Some of the most common amphetamine drugs include:

  • Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts)
  • Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine)
  • Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)

Methamphetamine, also known as “meth,” “crystal,” and “glass,” also belongs to the amphetamine class of drugs. While methamphetamine is available as a prescription drug to treat ADHD, it is most commonly seen on the street as an impure, rock-like substance that is smoked, snorted or injected.

Methamphetamine is an incredibly dangerous and addicting drug that can severely affect a user’s physical and mental health. Users will often abuse meth in a “binge and crash” cycle where they take the drug for days at a time, often going 3-4 days with no sleep. This is followed by a crash as they enter a state of depression and exhaustion.

Amphetamines – The Study Drug

Adderall, a prescription drug containing mixed amphetamine salts, is incredibly popular among college students. Because it can help users focus, it is often used to cram before big exams or term papers. In one survey asking 1,300 college students if they had used an amphetamine to help study, approximately 25% said they did, however only 8.9% of the students had a prescription for it.5

Methylphenidate

Methylphenidate is a stimulant drug similar to amphetamines. It goes under several brand names including Ritalin and Concerta, used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. While not technically an amphetamine, its effects are virtually the same as amphetamine stimulants.

Signs and Symptoms of Stimulant Addiction

The signs and symptoms of stimulant abuse may vary from person to person. Individuals who are addicted to stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin for study/work-related purposes may hide their addiction very well since they are likely to maintain success in work or academics. Some signs of stimulant addiction, however, are difficult to hide and may include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Hyperactivity
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid, unexplained weight loss
  • Deceptive behavior
  • Mood changes
Tolerance and Dependence

Like most drugs of abuse, tolerance can develop to the effects of stimulants, where the user must take more in order to achieve the same effect. Dependence can also develop, where the user must take the drug to feel normal. Many college students who take stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin illegally for a long period of time find it difficult to study without it.

Once a user is dependent on a stimulant they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they do not take it.

Withdrawal from Stimulants

Withdrawal from stimulants is generally not physically dangerous, however coping with the drug craving experienced during withdrawal can be incredibly difficult.

Some symptoms of stimulant withdrawal include the following:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Unpleasant dreams
  • Slow heart rate
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
Stimulant Addiction Treatment

Treatment for addiction to stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine or prescription amphetamines will often focus on repairing the mental health problems caused by long term stimulant use.

In some situations, antidepressants are used to help alleviate the depression associated with stimulant withdrawal and treat underlying depression. Naltrexone, a drug usually used for opioid dependence, is also used to help with drug craving as an adjunct to behavioral therapies.

Substance abuse is a very difficult challenge to overcome. While stimulant withdrawal is not physically dangerous, it is highly recommended that a user seek help from a healthcare professional who specializes in substance use disorders.

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