Last Updated on January 28, 2019
What Is a Stimulant?
Pronounced as /STIM-yuh-luhnts/
A stimulant is classified as a psychoactive drug which speeds the activity of the central nervous system. Once inside the body, a stimulant targets the brain and temporarily heightens mood, awareness and vigor. Stimulants can be taken orally, sniffed, or through injections.
Generally, most stimulants can be legally used such as prescription stimulants. Prescription stimulants are used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy, and to increase alertness in people with sleep deprivation. Commonly used prescription stimulants include dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate and amphetamines.
The effects of stimulants depend on the dose taken, but most individuals experience increased alertness, focus, physical activity, talkativeness and sociability after taking stimulant drugs.
However, there are also illicit stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and designer drugs such as Ecstasy. These illicit stimulants are often used for recreation and stimulant misuse can lead to stimulant addiction and other harmful physical and mental health effects.
Long-term stimulant misuse can cause permanent damage to the heart, liver, lungs, and brain. Stimulant drug abuse also increases the risk of stroke, arrhythmia, seizures and sudden death. Additionally, stimulant drug abuse may lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
Also, illicit stimulants may contain impurities or contaminants which can increase the risk of severe side effects. Therefore it is important to understand the potential risks and side effects before taking any stimulant drugs.
What Are Prescription Stimulants?
A prescription stimulant is a medicinal drug that is legally distributed to help individuals treat conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and to increase alertness in people with sleep deprivation.
As the name suggests, a stimulant prescription medication can only be obtained through a doctor’s prescription. Unlike over the counter drugs, you cannot buy these medications over the counter of a pharmacy without being prescribed by a doctor. Prescription stimulants can be taken orally, intravenously or even as a skin patch.
Common prescription stimulants include Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (mixed amphetamines - combination of 4 amphetamine salts). These common stimulants are known to work on the brain and stimulant effects include heightening mood, awareness and vigor.
Although prescription stimulants are intended for medical use, they may be subject to abuse. Misuse of prescription stimulant medication can lead to stimulant addiction and even serious health risks .
What Do Stimulants Look Like?
Stimulants can be in solid or liquid material composition. In solid form, they can be found as fine powder, granules, crystal, tablet or place inside capsules.
Some stimulants may also be in a liquid form. Stimulants in liquid form are used as injectables. When used illicitly, users dissolve stimulants into a liquid form for injection.
Other types of stimulant drugs are in the form of fiber like nicotine.
Overall, the appearance of stimulants can vary depending on the type and form of the drug. If you're looking for a specific type of stimulant drug, it's important to be cautious and make sure that the stimulant medication is obtained from a reliable source.
What Are Some of the Names of Stimulants?
The names of stimulants depend on the type, composition and form of the drug. Below is a list of stimulants including prescription stimulants, illicit stimulants, amphetamines, and other stimulants.
- Diet Pills
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
- Amphetamines (prescription amphetamines and illicit amphetamines)
- Caffeine and other energy drinks
What Are the Street Names of Stimulants?
Stimulants are popular drugs of abuse but because most stimulants cannot be bought over the counter without being prescribed the medications and some stimulants are illegal, many users source these drugs from the streets. This has led to the creation of various street names for stimulants.
Because there is a variety of stimulants, there are also so many street names associated with these medications. There are specific street names for prescription stimulants as well as street names for controlled substances / street drugs like meth and cocaine.
Below is a list of street names generally associated with stimulants:
- The smart drug
- Vitamin R
- Kibbles and bits
- Truck drivers
- Black beauties
- LA turnaround
What Are Stimulants Used For?
Stimulants are medications used to treat a variety of medical conditions and can provide relief from the symptoms associated with these conditions. Historically, stimulants were used to treat obesity, treat asthma, and a variety of ailments. At present, the most popular medical use of stimulant medications is to treat ADHD.
However, it's also very common to use prescription stimulants and illegal stimulants for purposes other than medical, such as to increase alertness, recreation, or improve academic performance.
Here are some of the functions of the different types of these drugs:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Stimulants are used to treat ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. An ADHD medication can enhance the patient’s focus, alertness and energy levels.
There have been many systematic review efforts that show that stimulant ADHD medications can be effective in managing the symptoms associated with ADHD. Concerta and Adderall are examples of prescription drugs for treating ADHD patients.
Aside from being used to treat ADHD, prescription stimulants can be used to treat narcolepsy, a condition that causes excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). Stimulants work by increasing alertness and focus in people suffering from narcolepsy.
To Amplify Heart Functions
Injectable stimulants are used to amplify heart and respiratory functions; the most common example is epinephrine.
To Minimize or Stop Bleeding
Topical stimulants are used to minimize or stop bleeding by contracting blood vessels and capillaries.
As a Study Drug
One of the most common uses of prescription stimulants is as a "study drug" to help young people and students stay alert and improve focus while studying. Prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD are the most popular form of study drugs.
Examples of stimulant ADHD medications are Adderall and Ritalin. According to a report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11% of college students misuse Adderall. Because of this harmful habit, many college students fall into the trap of stimulant addiction.
To Enhance Performance
Stimulants are used by athletes to increase their performance, such as increasing speed and agility. An example of stimulants that are used for enhancing athletic performance is ephedrine.
As an Appetite Suppressant
Prescription stimulants are used as a weight loss drug. Taking stimulants is known to result in decreased appetite and reduced food cravings. While this may be effective when properly prescribed by a doctor or healthcare provider, the risk is heightened when a person uses an illicit stimulant drug like methamphetamine to achieve the same effect.
Other stimulants are sometimes prescribed to treat depression, especially in cases of treatment-resistant depression or when an antidepressant is ineffective. Examples of stimulant drugs used for this purpose include Dexedrine and Ritalin.
As a Recreational Drug
Stimulants are a type of psychoactive drug that people use as a form of recreational drug to enhance feelings of pleasure, energy and euphoria. Street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and Ecstasy are examples of popular stimulants used for recreational purposes. However, prescription drugs like those prescribed for ADHD drugs are also now being used as recreational drugs.
How Do Stimulants Work?
Stimulants are drugs that increase the activity of the central nervous system. This is the reason why they are also referred to as CNS stimulants.
Prescription stimulants help patients by amplifying the effects of norepinephrine and dopamine which leads to elevated blood pressure, respiratory activity and euphoria.
When inside the body, the stimulant drug either destroys or reinforces the normal communication pathways in our neurons and the central nervous system. Illicit stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine disturb the dopamine pathway system.
Here is a brief overview to explain the role of dopamine and norepinephrine in the body.
There are several neurotransmitters in our brain and dopamine is one of them. Neurotransmitters are the information-carrier chemical substances in the central nervous system.
Dopamine aids in the regulation of learning, body movements, attention and emotional stimuli. In the reward system, it contributes to the pleasure and satisfaction emotions of a person.
Low-level dopamine production leads to diseases such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and ADHD.
Norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter that is produced by the adrenal medulla. The main role of this chemical substance is to treat patients with vasodilatory shocks.
It works the same way as adrenaline. It induces vasoconstriction or the contraction of blood vessels in order to increase blood pressure and sugar levels. It’s used in critical situations such as hypotension or extremely low blood pressure and CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
How Strong is a Stimulant?
Like any other drug, its strength is directly proportional to the type of stimulant and the amount ingested by the person.
In terms of prescription stimulants, Desoxypipradrol would be the one of the strongest prescription medications in this class. It is related to Ritalin. Less than 10mg oral intake of this substance is able to keep a person awake for multiple days. In comparison, a 30mg methylphenidate or Ritalin can only keep a person awake for around 6 hours.
Below are some of the standard regular dosage levels for prescription stimulants.
- Adderall (for ADHD): Children older than 5 years must start this ADHD medication at 5mg and slowly increase up to 30mg. Regular intakes every 4 to 6 hours
- Narcolepsy (for Adults): 5mg and slow increase up to 60mg
Illicit stimulants like cocaine and meth are highly addictive. The strength of both substances depend on how they are used and how pure the substance is.
How Long Does a Stimulant Stay in Your System, Blood, Urine, Saliva, Hair?
If you are to undergo a drug test, you may be wondering how long stimulants stay in your system. The duration of time these stimulants can be detected in your system is dependent on its type and chemical composition.
Considering that most prescription types have amphetamines in them (including ADHD drugs), here are the approximate times you can detect traces of stimulants with amphetamines in your system.
- Blood test: 10 - 12 hours
- Urine test: 1 - 3 days
- Saliva test: 1 - 5 days
- Hair test: 90 days
The above times are just estimates. Again, many factors can influence the time it takes for stimulants to be completely flushed from your system. Whether a stimulant drug stays in your body for a long or short period will also depend on your age, body type, genetics and even how often you take the drug.
What Are the Side Effects of Stimulant Use?
Whether you took a prescription stimulant like an ADHD drug or an illegal stimulant, stimulants can directly impact the brain particularly its movement, emotion and attention. Stimulants stimulate the brain’s dopamine and norepinephrine production level which can increase respiratory action, sugar levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
- Blood pressure and heart rate rapidly increase
- Respiratory action increases
- Slows down blood flow
- Increased sugar level in the blood
- More breathing airways
- Stimulant addiction
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dangerously high body temperature
- Damaged liver, kidney, blood vessels, brain and heart
- Inflammation of nasal tissues
- Rapid weight loss and malnutrition
- Emotional instability
- Mental disorder
- Decline in cognitive function
How Does One Get Addicted to Stimulants?
Stimulants, in general, can be highly addictive and cause substance abuse. Even "milder" stimulants like caffeine and nicotine can cause addiction and cause physical dependence.
Addiction is highly possible because stimulants directly affect the brain and overstimulate dopamine production, leading to a feeling of pleasure or euphoria. Once someone gets used to this feeling, they may start seeking it out more often, eventually leading to an addiction.
Many people struggling with prescription stimulant addiction often start by taking their medication as prescribed, but gradually increase the dosage or frequency of use. Substance abuse of these prescription medications is increasingly becoming very common.
Some take prescription stimulants like an ADHD medication as a "one-time" study drug, only to find themselves hooked on these ADHD medications. At first, taking the ADHD drug may help them focus better and ace their exams, but soon they realize that the drug has become essential for them to be able to focus. This is a common scenario that leads to substance use disorder.
Others may start to use prescription stimulants recreationally, experimenting with higher doses of the drug, for longer periods of time. This can eventually lead to stimulant addiction.
A news release published on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website stated that over 5 million adults in America are misusing prescription stimulants in 2018. This number is a warning sign that more people are getting addicted to prescription stimulants which can lead to long-term health complications.
Another danger is when a prescription stimulant becomes a gateway drug, leading to the use of other illicit stimulants. This happens when a person cannot get the same high as they used to from a prescription stimulant, and turn to stronger stimulants like cocaine or meth.
For instance, someone who might be addicted to an ADHD medication may turn to illicit stimulant drugs when their doctor stops prescribing them the drug.
Why Are Stimulants Dangerous?
Stimulants pose a great threat to the body particularly if you get addicted which could lead you to taking high doses. The main target of these medications is the central nervous system, the heart and the lungs.
For the central nervous system, dependence and excessive intake can result in permanent and irreversible brain damage which could lead to paralysis, memory loss, and uncoordinated body movements.
In terms of respiratory actions, stimulants can destroy nasal tissues when snorted and might cause blockage of airways. Moreover, excessive intake tires the liver and kidney from filtering harmful and toxic substances. In the long run, liver and kidney failure are likely to occur.
Aside from the risk of developing substance use disorder, taking too much or mixing stimulant drugs with other substances can also cause drug overdoses. For example mixing an ADHD medication with other drugs like alcohol can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, which could result in a stroke, heart attack or total heart failure.
Overall, stimulants are highly addictive and dangerous drugs that have long-term side effects on the body. It is important to take them only with a doctor’s prescription and supervision to prevent any health risks
What Causes Stimulant Overdose?
Overdosing on stimulants could lead to dangerous and fatal consequences like seizures, stroke, coma, heart attack, complete heart failure, and death.
Drug use of a prescription stimulant that is much higher than what is recommended by the physician could cause an overdose. People who already reached a high tolerance for prescription stimulants like an ADHD medication may also find it difficult to identify the amount that can be tolerated.
There is also an increasing number of reports about fake stimulant drugs being sold. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, many illicit drug manufacturers sell counterfeit versions of popular prescription stimulant ADHD drugs. What many users are unaware of is that these fake ADHD stimulant drugs are laced with other substances like the opioid fentanyl or other stimulant drugs. In 2022, The Drug Enforcement Agency seized over 660,00 fake Adderall pills that were laced with methamphetamines.
For illicit stimulants like meth and cocaine, an overdose can happen even with a low or regular dose if the drug is mixed with other ingredients that are toxic and when taken in high amounts. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2019, about 16,000 people died from cocaine overdose while 16,500 died from overdosing on methamphetamines.
What Are the Signs of an Overdose?
Stimulant overdose can manifest through the following signs:
- Uncontrolled body actions
- Fast breathing
- Muscle pains
- Uncontrolled aggressive behavior
- Dangerously high body temperature
How Do You Treat Stimulant Overdose?
If the person goes into a sudden heart attack or seizure, call an emergency healthcare provider to get fast medical assistance. In cases where a healthcare provider is not yet available, apply first aid measures to prolong the patient’s life until rescue arrives.
Here are some first aid measures to apply:
- First, check for the pulse and breathing of the patient.
- Apply CPR if the person is not breathing.
- If the person is breathing but unconscious, slowly place him in recovery position by log rolling him towards you on their left side.
- Position hip and knee at right angles by bending the top leg. Lastly, carefully tilt their head back to maintain an open airway.
- If conscious, keep the person warm and loosen clothing.
- Try to ask the person of the substance taken while waiting for medical personnel.
What Are the Withdrawal Symptoms from Stimulant Drug Abuse?
According to the Cantwell and McBride (1998) study, the withdrawal symptoms for stimulant abuse are the following:
- Irritability (78%)
- Muscle pains (58%)
- Depression (50%)
- Anti-social behavior (46%)
- Abdominal cramps
How Can You Treat Stimulant Addiction?
Stimulant addiction is a serious problem, not only in America, but globally. The most effective approach to treating substance use disorder is to seek professional help from an addiction treatment professional.
A customized treatment program that will address the underlying causes of the addiction is essential to ensure successful and sustainable recovery from stimulant addiction.