Adderall is a brand name prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it can sometimes be prescribed to treat symptoms of narcolepsy. It is a stimulant medication. Drugs that stimulate certain parts of the central nervous system in people with ADHD actually help them concentrate, remain physically calm, and reduce impulsiveness.
Adderall contains two drugs: amphetamine, and dextroamphetamine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved this substance in 1960, but it has overtaken other amphetamine prescriptions like Ritalin in popularity in recent years.
Why Do People Abuse Adderall?
It is very rare for people who are diagnosed with ADHD at a young age and receive appropriate medical and therapeutic interventions over the course of their lives to abuse their prescriptions, whether it is Adderall or another stimulant drug. Some people are alarmed that the number of prescriptions for drugs like Adderall has risen in the past decade; there were 45 percent more prescriptions for ADHD medications from 2002 to 2010. However, this is likely due to a change in how ADHD is understood and diagnosed. While Adderall is distributed more, it most likely means that people who have ADHD and need treatment are getting medical help.
However, with more prescriptions comes an increased risk of prescription drug abuse. If the drug is available in a home, adolescents or addicted adults may steal the drugs and abuse them recreationally. Like other stimulant drugs, including cocaine or meth, Adderall releases a lot of dopamine into the brain, creating an excited euphoria.
One of the most common ways people abuse Adderall is as a “study drug.” High school and college students have the mistaken belief that Adderall and other ADHD medications, including Ritalin and Vyvanse, work as performance-enhancing drugs because one of the effects on people with ADHD is that they pay better attention. Recent statistics suggest that up to 30 percent of college students abuse Adderall, Ritalin, and similar drugs as performance enhancers for their academics; a public health review found that Adderall specifically was abused by 9 percent of college students, making it the most abused prescription stimulant on campuses in 2012. A survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that 6.5 percent of high school students reported abusing Adderall in the past year.
Students who wait until the last minute to study falsely believe that Adderall can help them retain more information before an exam or allow them to stay up all night with no consequences to write a research paper. For people who do not have ADHD, a short-term side effect of Adderall may be greater concentration, but the drug will not improve information retention or reduce the person’s need for rest.
Some people who abuse stimulant drugs, including Adderall, do so because they want to lose weight. Stimulants increase physical energy and decrease appetite, giving the person the feeling that they are able to successfully exercise more and eat less. This may work for a very short amount of time, but ultimately, eating less can lead to malnutrition and exercising more can harm the body.
Women are more likely to abuse prescription stimulants than men, in part because they have in the past had their children diagnosed with ADHD, then used Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, and other prescription amphetamines to fulfill their obligations as workers, parents, and spouses. This “Supermom” effect has been reported on several times, although there are few statistics on how many women are abusing these drugs. Professional baseball players also view stimulants like Adderall as performance enhancers, and they are more likely than other sports professionals and the general public to abuse prescription amphetamines.
The Physical Risks of Abusing Adderall
Additionally, abusing stimulants, even if they are prescription drugs, can cause harmful side effects to other organ systems, including the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. Dangerous side effects from abusing Adderall include:
- Changes in vision
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- High blood pressure
- Physical weakness or numbness
- Uncontrolled movements or sounds
- Aggressive and uncontrolled behavior
- Skin rash
- Irregular heartbeat
While these dangerous side effects may certainly occur in people who take Adderall as prescribed under a doctor’s supervision, they are more likely to develop in people who abuse the drug.
Prescription Adderall Use to Abuse and Addiction
People who have a prescription for Adderall to treat their ADHD are not generally at risk of abusing this drug. While those who struggle with ADHD, especially if it is untreated, are at a greater risk for abusing other substances – alcohol and cigarettes are two of the most common – other people who do not have ADHD are at greater risk for abusing prescription drugs like Adderall compared to those who have received a legitimate prescription. However, if a person has an Adderall prescription, someone who lives with them could steal it, or a person could sell their prescription to friends or classmates as a study drug.
Adderall has some dangerous side effects, and withdrawing from the drug can be difficult. This is especially true if people abuse the drug by snorting, smoking, or injecting it; these methods of abuse send amphetamines to the brain much faster than digesting a pill or tablet. Forcing drugs to affect the brain faster increases the risk of addiction and dependence due to the rapid release of neurotransmitters. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that between 2005 and 2011, emergency room admissions for young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 tripled due to stimulant abuse.
Those who abuse Adderall recreationally, especially college students, are much more likely to abuse other drugs. NIDA found that students were more likely to abuse drugs like:
- Marijuana: Almost 80 percent of students who abused Adderall also abused cannabis.
- Prescription tranquilizers: Students were eight times more likely to abuse these drugs if they also abused Adderall.
- Opioids: Nearly 45 percent of adolescents and young adults who abused prescription painkillers were also abusing Adderall.
- Cocaine: Almost 29 percent of students who abused Adderall had also abused cocaine in the past year.
In combination with other drugs, Adderall may be abused as a party drug. One study found that 55 percent of students who were part of a fraternity abused Adderall, often in combination with other drugs; this practice of polydrug abuse increases the risk of hospitalization, overdose, and death.
The Adderall Crash
Like other stimulant drugs, including other amphetamines, crystal meth, and cocaine, Adderall can lead to bingeing in order to avoid comedown symptoms like fatigue and depression; this can lead to the “Adderall crash.” This crash is similar to withdrawal symptoms but may feel more intense because the brain is depleted of dopamine.
Symptoms of the Adderall crash include:
- Intense craving for more Adderall
- Extreme difficulty sleeping
- Alternating between insomnia and over-sleeping
- Intense hunger from not eating before the crash
- Increased anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Irritability and mood swings
- Unhappiness and depression
- Increased phobias
- Suicidal ideation
The Dangers of Adderall Overdose
It is possible to overdose on Adderall. If a person overdoses on this drug, immediately call 911.
- Increased and irregular heartbeat
- Bradycardia, or abnormally slow heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Abnormally rapid breathing
- Pupil dilation
- Shaking or tremors
- Dangerously low blood sugar
- Deficiency of platelets in the blood
- Kidney and liver damage
Some behavioral changes can indicate that a person is beginning to overdose on Adderall. These include delusions, hallucinations, increased aggression, paranoia, and psychosis. In some instances, people who are predisposed to a psychotic disorder may trigger this condition by abusing Adderall or other stimulants.
People who abuse Adderall are at risk of not only becoming addicted to the drug but of also developing a tolerance to it and a dependence on it. If they feel like they need the drug and take it compulsively, they will also feel like they need larger doses to achieve the original high. This can lead to an overdose.
Treating Adderall Addiction
If a person struggles with Adderall addiction, they must get help from a rehabilitation program that specializes in treating stimulant addictions. Some of the damage from addiction is reversible if the person can remain sober and stable in recovery. While there are no replacement medications to treat withdrawal symptoms – unlike for opioids or alcohol, for example – a doctor will work with a patient who needs to detox from Adderall and offer small doses of over-the-counter or safe prescription medicines to ease some of the symptoms. Mental health symptoms, like paranoia or psychosis, may require long-term treatment with a combination of prescription medication and psychotherapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common and effective form of evidence-based psychotherapy used to treat addiction and other behavioral conditions.
With the help of medical professionals, therapists, and the support of family and friends, overcoming Adderall addiction is very possible. Detox, rehabilitation, and long-term sobriety are within reach.