Any drug, even when prescribed, can be bad for your health, and Adderall is no exception. Although Adderall can be legally prescribed for certain conditions, if misused or used without a prescription, it can be dangerous. Even when used as directed, this popular “study drug” can cause negative side effects. When misused or abused, Adderall can seriously affect mental and physical health and poses a high risk of addiction.
Adderall is categorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a Schedule II drug, meaning that while it is effective medically, it also has a high potential for abuse. The FDA also warns use of the drug may increase the risk of serious heart problems or death. They also strongly advise the careful use of Adderall for those with high blood pressure or heart conditions. Despite warnings, Adderall is one of the most popular, and one of the most abused, prescription drugs in the U.S.
Prescribed Adderall is taken by mouth and comes in tablets, capsules, or liquid form. People who misuse this drug may crush the pills then smoke, snort, or inject it.
What is Adderall and why is it prescribed?
Adderall is a stimulant containing a combination of amphetamines and dextroamphetamines. It is commonly prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and may include sleep paralysis, muscle weakness, or hallucinations.
Symptoms of ADHD may include:
- Inability to pay attention
- Mood swings
- Fidgeting, overactivity
- Excessive talking, interrupting
- Difficulty in focusing
- Impulsive behavior
ADD displays the same symptoms as ADHD but without hyperactivity.
How does Adderall work to improve symptoms?
The drug combination in Adderall includes amphetamines and dextroamphetamines, and each has a different effect. Specifically, dextroamphetamines interact with the pleasure and reward center of the brain, triggering increased levels of dopamine, which elevates mood. Meanwhile, amphetamines stimulate the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine which boost alertness, focus, and promote clear thinking. By improving overall alertness and energy levels, Adderall not only improves symptoms of ADD and ADHD but also of narcolepsy.
It may seem illogical to treat hyperactivity with a stimulant, but research has shown it works. A 2018 study by the University of Buffalo on the effectiveness of stimulants for treating ADHD found improvements in classroom behavior, memory, impulsive behavior, attention, and overall improved cognitive function.
Misuse of Adderall
The effects that Adderall delivers, such as increased energy and focus, clearer thinking, and pleasurable feelings, are desirable to many users, even for those who have not been prescribed the drug. Adderall has a reputation for extensive non-prescribed use, especially in the 18-25 year old age group.
A national survey sponsored by The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that the usage of the drug without medical supervision “has been at about 10% for college students and 7% among young adults” per year. Other reports have identified between 6-30% of college students using the drug both recreationally and as a study aid. This misuse has translated into documented increases in emergency department visits.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at trends in emergency department (ED) visits involving prescription stimulants in the United States. The study, Prescriptions, Nonmedical Use, and Emergency Department Visits Involving Prescription Stimulants, gathered data over a six-year period and found that “In adults, treatment visits involving dextroamphetamine-amphetamine remained unchanged, while nonmedical use went up by 67.1% and ED visits went up by 155.9%.” The study also noted that most individuals were illegally obtaining the medication from family and friends.
Adderall side effects can be dangerous
When used as prescribed, Adderall can be both effective and rarely dangerous. But when the drug has not been prescribed for the person taking it, or it has been prescribed but is being misused, side effects can be serious. Common side effects can include nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, and headache. There are potentially many other side effects, some of which may be dangerous.
The following side effects can adversely impact body systems and functions:
- Suppresses appetite and can lead to anorexia
- Disrupts sleep patterns and may lead to hypertension, diabetes, heart disease
- Increases blood pressure and heart rate and increases risk of stroke, heart failure
- Increases respiration and can lead to pneumonia, heart attack, pulmonary embolism
- Constricts blood vessels and may contribute to hypertension, arterial disease
- Raises blood glucose levels and may cause confusion, dizziness, fainting
Severe side effects can occur, especially if users take high doses of the drug, and can be life-threatening. Side effects could lead to stroke, sudden cardiac death, psychosis, or seizures. There is also a danger of permanent damage to kidneys and other organs.
For those who snort the drug, additional side effects may include sinus infections, holes in the septum, and nose bleeds. Injecting Adderall, or any drug may result in infections, sores, abscesses, or collapsed veins. Collapsed veins hinder circulation which could lead to stroke, heart problems, or kidney disease.
Can you overdose (OD) on Adderall?
Yes, especially if Adderall is used along with other drugs or medications. Medications like Wellbutrin, Paxil, and Prozac, and MAOI antidepressants are especially dangerous when combined with Adderall. It is also unwise to combine alcohol with Adderall. According to a report by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), between 2005-2010 the number of hospital emergency visits involving ADHD stimulant medications increased from 13,379 to 31,244, with about 19% of those visits also involving alcohol.
These symptoms may indicate an overdose
If the following symptoms occur, they may signal an overdose, which is a medical emergency. Help should be sought immediately.
- Shortness of breath
- Racing or pounding heart
- Swelling of ankles and feet
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- State of panic
- Abnormally high fever
- Weakness on one side of the body
Treatment for Adderall abuse
The first step is detoxification from the drug. If you have used Adderall long-term or at high doses, withdrawal effects can be severe.
- Meet with your doctor: He or she knows your medical history and can help guide you to treatment options and referrals. Even if you were taking Adderall that was not prescribed for you, it’s still important you meet with your doctor or an addiction specialist for guidance on treatment.
- Detoxification: Your doctor or addiction specialist can refer you to the detoxification program which best fits your situation. You will be medically supervised to ensure you are safe and as comfortable as possible throughout the process.
- Therapeutic treatment plan: This may include individual and group counseling, enrollment in a 12-step program, and behavioral therapies, all of which can help with long-term recovery.
- Aftercare plan: This will likely include continuing individual or group counseling, 12-step program attendance, and follow-up appointments.
Behavioral therapies that may be part of a treatment plan:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps identify where addiction comes from and works to change negative thought patterns, recognize and manage stressors and triggers, and strengthen interpersonal skills.
- 12-step programs provide an important framework for recovery, especially when combined with evidence-based therapy like CBT.
- Alternative therapies may include art therapy, yoga, and meditation. These activities help fuel positive personal growth and change.
Importance of good nutrition and exercise in recovery
Drugs like Adderall can trigger unhealthy habits including poor diet and sleep dysfunction. Both adversely affect the body physically and mentally. Proper nutrition during recovery can help improve the health of the organs and immune system and can increase mental clarity and function. Good nutrition can also help:
- Reduce unhealthy cravings
- Improve sleep patterns
- Boost energy levels
- Lower anxiety
- Achieve healthy weight
- Improve electrolyte balance
- Improve gastrointestinal function
Regular exercise is also a valuable component of a recovery program. Exercise not only delivers physical benefits but may also improve mood and help to manage anxiety.
Medically Reviewed and Fact Checked By Dr. Thomaso Skorupski, D.O.