Prescription stimulants

Prescription stimulants include amphetamines, methylphenidates, ephedrine and other similar drugs. They are prescribed to treat conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and sleeping problems. When used properly, they can help. But when abused, they can cause addiction, overdose and death.

Learn about prescription stimulants, their effects and health risks.

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What are prescription stimulants?

Prescription stimulants are drugs that stimulate, excite or speed up the brain and other parts of the body. These can increase:

  • alertness and wakefulness,
  • attention, and
  • energy.

Prescription stimulants are generally used to treat particular medical conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and sleeping disorders.

When used as prescribed, they can greatly reduce disease symptoms for patients who need them.

What are the side effects of using prescription stimulants?

There are many dangerous and unpredictable effects associated with abusing prescription drugs including addiction, overdose and death.

Like other medications, prescription stimulants may have side effects, even when used as directed. Short-term effects of prescription stimulant use can include:

  • difficulty sleeping,
  • decreased appetite,
  • headache and dizziness,
  • elevated heart rate,
  • euphoria (feeling high),
  • anxiety,
  • nausea and vomiting, and
  • elevated breathing rate.

Long-term effects of prescription stimulant use can lead to changes in mood or behaviour, which may include:

  • aggression and anger, and
  • suspicion and paranoia (distrust of others).

Prescription stimulant dependence and withdrawal

It is also important to realize that regular use of prescription stimulants, including for medical purposes, can lead to physical dependence. This is because the body gets used to having the drug. If the drug is suddenly stopped (withdrawn), the person will experience withdrawal symptoms. A person may be physically dependent on the drug, but this does not necessarily mean that he or she is addicted. Addiction refers to the compulsive use of a drug despite negative consequences.

Drug cravings are the most common symptom of withdrawal. Other symptoms of prescription stimulant withdrawal can include:

  • tiredness and sleep problems,
  • mood changes, particularly depression,
  • loss of physical and mental energy, and
  • anxiety and agitation.

The severity of withdrawal and how long it lasts depend on:

  • which prescription was used or abused,
  • how much was taken, and
  • how long the drug was used or abused.

These symptoms can be minimized if patients consult their healthcare professional when it is time to reduce or stop using a prescription stimulant. A healthcare professional can help them establish a schedule to reduce their dose gradually.

What are the risks of prescription stimulant abuse?

Because prescription stimulants can increase alertness, energy and perceived focus, they are abused by people without a prescription. In fact, abuse rates have been rising among:

  • academic professionals,
  • athletes,
  • performers, and
  • high school and college students.

Taking high doses of a prescription stimulant intended for therapeutic purposes may result in:

  • dangerously high body temperature;
  • increased potential for heart attack, stroke, hypertension;
  • increased risk of seizures; and
  • overdose (which can include psychotic episodes).

Prescription stimulants should not be mixed with other medications unless recommended by a health care provider. This is because mixing prescription stimulants with over-the-counter medication (such as decongestant cold medicines) or prescription antidepressants can cause:

  • dangerously high blood pressure or
  • irregular heart rate.

Combining prescription stimulants with alcohol can lead to serious health risks, including overdose and possibly even death. This is because stimulants hide the depressant (relaxing) effects of alcohol, increasing the risk of alcohol overdose.

How is prescription stimulant addiction treated?

A person is addicted when a drug becomes the focus of their thoughts, feelings and activities. They crave the drug and cannot function without it.

Once a prescription stimulant addiction has developed, it causes changes in the person's brain and body. This means that addiction can be very difficult to overcome.

Behavioural therapies can be effective for treating prescription stimulant addiction. These therapies focus on changing behaviour and teaching the skills needed to cope with addiction.

How can you help prevent prescription stimulant abuse?

You can prevent the possibility of prescription stimulant abuse and addiction by following these guidelines.

Use your medication properly

  • Ask your health care provider about your medication, especially if you are unsure about its effects.
  • Make sure your health care provider is aware of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs to avoid any harmful drug interactions.
  • Make sure your health care provider is aware if you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Use all medications exactly as directed. This includes taking the right dose at the right time, and not changing your dose or discontinuing use without consulting with your doctor. Avoid crushing your pills, or cutting them open. Crushing or cutting pills can lead to a rapid release of medication, which can cause a fatal overdose.

Keep your medication safe to help prevent abuse by others

  • Store stimulant medications in a safe place, out of the reach of children and teenagers. Keep track of the amount remaining in the package.
  • Do not share your medication with anyone else. Not only is this illegal, but may also cause serious harm or death to the other person.
  • Return unused medication to the pharmacy for safe disposal. This prevents any possibility of illegal use. It also protects the environment from contamination.

Get help

Are you struggling with drug abuse? Is someone you care about having a problem?

Help is available, whether you need it for yourself, a friend, or a family member.

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