Stimulants Addiction & Abuse
Stimulants are types of drugs that speed up the body’s activity. The use of stimulants may affect the user’s health negatively and possibly result in the development of tolerance and substance use disorder.1 This is why it’s advisable for people who struggle with stimulant abuse to seek treatment under the supervision of qualified treatment professionals.
What Is a Stimulant?
Some types of stimulants are prescription medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin.1 Other examples of stimulants are illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. Stimulants have a number of street names, like uppers, coke, cat, crystal, bennies, black beauties, speed, R-ball, vitamin R, and snow. They are produced in the form of powder, pills, rocks, and liquid.1
The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 17.2 million Americans aged 12 or older used stimulants (6.4 percent) in the past year. Of the 18.9 million people who misused prescription drugs, 5.3 million misused stimulants (2.0 percent).2 Since stimulants have a high potential for abuse and their misuse may cause a number of adverse health effects, including overdose and addiction, people who misuse stimulants are advised to seek treatment.
What Are the Different Types of Stimulants?
This list of stimulants includes some of the most common stimulant examples:1
- Amphetamines: They can be in the form of pills or powder, which users can swallow or inject. Many amphetamines are prescription medications used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some of these prescription drugs are amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall), methylphenidate (Ritalin or Ritalin SR), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine). There is also an increasing number of illicitly made amphetamines.
- Cocaine: Cocaine, also known as coke or snow, is a highly addictive drug that produces an intense feeling of euphoria. It usually comes in the form of a white powder, which can be snorted or injected. Crack is a base form of cocaine that looks like irregularly shaped rocks and is typically smoked. Although rarely used therapeutically in the U.S., cocaine hydrochloride solutions are approved for medical use as topical local anesthetics.
- Methamphetamine: Methamphetamine is a stimulant that comes in powder and pill form. The methamphetamine Desoxyn is a prescription drug used to treat obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Crystal meth is a variety of methamphetamine that is made in illicit laboratories. It looks like clear crystals which resemble ice or glass. Users swallow, snort, inject, or smoke methamphetamine.
- Khat: The leaves and twigs of the khat shrub are the source of this drug. Users most often chew it, but they can also use it as tea, smoke it, or sprinkle it over food. Khat contains the chemical cathinone, which is classified as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses in the U.S.
How Do Stimulants Affect the Nervous System?
Generally, when abused, stimulants may produce these effects:1
- Self-esteem boost
- Enhanced physical and mental functioning
- Decreased appetite
- Raised activity levels
- Staying awake for a long period of time
These effects come from a surge of the chemical dopamine in the parts of the brain that control the feelings of pleasure.1 Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a messenger that carries signals from one brain cell to another. Stimulants cause an abnormal accumulation of dopamine in the brain, enhancing its impact on brain cells and causing the feeling of euphoria.3
As for the specific types of stimulants:
- The use of khat is associated with manic behavior, including grandiose delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, nightmares, euphoria, raised alertness, hyperactivity, and insomnia.4
- Cocaine produces intense euphoric sensations as well as heightened alertness and agitation. The speed and severity of its impact vary based on the dosage and method of use. If the user smokes or injects it, it affects their brain in a matter of seconds, producing a powerful effect. If the user snorts it, the impact is weaker and delayed.5
- In general, the impact of amphetamines and methamphetamine is similar to that of cocaine, but with a slower onset and prolonged duration. Smoking or injecting methamphetamine causes a short and intense rush while swallowing or snorting it leads to a long-term high, which can go on for up to half a day. 1
Since patients with ADHD have trouble staying focused and amphetamines enhance alertness, medical professionals may prescribe certain amphetamine medications to help with this condition.6 As well as illicit stimulants, prescription stimulants can lead to the development of a substance use disorder if used in ways and amounts other than prescribed.6
What Do Stimulants Do to the Body?
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased pulse rate
- Lowered appetite
Taking larger doses of stimulants may greatly amplify these effects and lead to stimulant overdose.1
What Are the Side Effects of Stimulants?
- Heart palpitations
- Profuse sweating
- Stomach pain
- Nausea and vomiting
The effects of cocaine, for example, set in almost instantly and go away after up to one hour.3 They include dilated pupils, higher body temperature, increased pulse and blood pressure, and constricted blood vessels. Users may also feel restless, anxious, and irritable. Cocaine may also cause severe health consequences, such as:3
- Heart rhythm irregularities
- Heart attack
- Death, caused by cardiac arrest or a seizure
Some long-term stimulant effects include:
- Prolonged use of high doses of stimulant drugs may lead to aggression and suicidal or homicidal behavior.1
- Users may experience paranoia and hallucinations.1Binging large doses of cocaine may even cause psychosis, where the person experiences disordered thinking and loses touch with reality.3
- The development of movement disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, may happen after years of using cocaine.3
- Stimulant use can cause the impairment of a number of cognitive functions, like attention and memory.3
- Cocaine use during pregnancy may cause high blood pressure, spontaneous miscarriage, preterm labor, and complications during labor.3
- Users who inject the substance are at a higher risk of contracting HIV. There is also evidence that cocaine use speeds up the progression of HIV infection.3
What Are the Effects of Mixing Stimulants With Other Drugs?
Cocaine users often also drink alcohol. Mixing these substances can be very harmful as they react and produce the chemical called cocaethylene. This chemical can exacerbate the drugs’ toxicity to the heart.3
People also often use cocaine with heroin, which is called “speedballing”. Since cocaine, a stimulant, has the opposite effect to heroin, an opioid, users mix them to counteract the side effects of both drugs. However, this practice is very dangerous and potentially fatal. The user may accidentally take a higher dose of heroin. Since the effects of cocaine disappear before those of heroin, this can lead to heroin overdose and death.3
What Are Stimulant Addiction Treatment Programs?
Stimulant users can achieve recovery by entering treatment for stimulant abuse under the care of trained medical professionals. Although there currently aren’t any FDA-approved medications that could be used in stimulant treatment, there are treatment options to consider.7 Behavioral therapies, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, The Matrix Model, and 12-step programs, are used to guide people who abuse stimulants to recovery.7Additionally, there is ongoing research that may determine pharmacological options for cocaine addiction treatment.3 Also, the development of a cocaine vaccine, which should decrease the risk of relapse, is underway.3
Frequently Asked Questions
- It is common for stimulant users to binge on the drug by taking several doses one after the other over a short period of time, followed by a period of no stimulant use. Chronic users may continue taking new doses as soon as the previous one wears off until they run out or become severely exhausted.1 Repeated use of stimulants may lead to stimulant addiction.3Tolerance to stimulants builds up quickly, meaning that they have to take higher doses to achieve the desired effects.1 Simultaneously, the user may experience sensitization, which means that lower doses are enough to trigger adverse effects.3Psychological dependence can also occur, making the user feel cravings for the drug if they haven’t taken it.1 It’s especially strong in the case of the most powerful stimulants, like amphetamine, methylphenidate, methamphetamine, and cocaine.1Meth use showed an upward trend between 2016 and 2018.8 In 2018, 106,000 people aged 26 or older were taking methamphetamine.8 About 913,000 people in a 2014 survey met the official criteria for cocaine dependence or abuse in the previous year.3 Considering the potential for stimulant addiction and other detrimental effects to the health, users are strongly advised to seek professional assistance.
- Cocaine withdrawal, as an example, happens soon after the user administered the last dose of the drug.9 This kind of stimulant withdrawal typically occurs in three stages:9
- Stage one: The phase also known as the “crash” features mental and physical fatigue, sleepiness, depression, irritability, anxiety, and increased appetite.
- Stage two: At this stage, the craving to use cocaine reappears and the user has difficulty concentrating and feels irritable and lethargic. It may last up to 10 weeks.
- Stage three: In this phase, the user may feel the craving to use occasionally, especially when provoked by certain triggers.
Since stimulant withdrawal can be a mentally and physically taxing process, users may benefit from getting professional support. Under psychological and medical care, users can achieve cocaine detox as well as successful methamphetamine detox in a safe way.
- The duration of the effects of cocaine, for example, depends on what method the person uses to take it.3 It will reach the brain more quickly if the user smokes it, but it will last for a shorter period of time (5 to 10 minutes). If it’s snorted, the effects are delayed, but they last longer (15 to 30 minutes).3Cocaine’s half-life is just 90 minutes while methamphetamine typically stays in the body for a longer period of time.9,1 If the user smokes methamphetamine, they experience a short and powerful high. When they snort or swallow it, the effects last for hours, sometimes up to half a day.1
Stimulant overdose may produce these symptoms:1
- Delusions and hallucinations
- High body temperature
- Irregular heartbeat
- Cardiac arrest
In 2018, 27,342 people died as a result of a stimulant overdose, which accounted for 40 percent of all overdose death in the U.S.10 Deaths from cocaine overdose are on the rise and more than 16,000 people died from a cocaine overdose in 2019.11 This may be due to the growing use of highly pure street cocaine.1 Also, about 16,500 people died as a result of a methamphetamine overdose in the same year.12
If someone is suspected of having overdosed on a stimulant, it is necessary to seek urgent medical attention. Although no single medication can counteract a stimulant overdose, there are treatment options for the various health conditions that the overdose may cause. For example, it may involve restoring blood supply to the heart in the case of a heart attack or to the brain if a stroke occurs.13
Due to the dangers of stimulant use, it is strongly recommended to enter stimulant addiction treatment and seek the guidance of a trained treatment professional.
1. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide.
2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. (2016). Prescription Drug Use and Misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Cocaine Research Report.
4. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug Facts Sheet: Khat.
5. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug Facts Sheet: Cocaine.
6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Your Brain on Stimulants, Part 1: How Stimulants Work.
7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Commonly Used Drugs.
8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Know the Risks of Meth.
9. Australian Government Department of Health. (2004). The Cocaine Withdrawal Syndrome.
10. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Treatment of Stimulant Use Disorders. SAMHSA Publication No. PEP20-06-01-001 Rockville, MD: National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory.
11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Cocaine.
12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Rising Stimulant Deaths Show That We Face More Than Just an Opioid Crisis.
13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Cocaine DrugFacts.