Stimulants Symptoms, Signs and Side Effects

man experiencing stimulant side effects holding head in hand

Stimulants include illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, in addition to medications like Adderall or Ritalin. The shared trait that all of these substances have in common is that they speed up the normal processes occurring in the brain and body.

People who use these drugs should be aware that they often come with negative symptoms. Both legally prescribed and illicitly used stimulants can give people a number of unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects, especially when they are not being used for legitimate medical purposes. Learning about the side effects of stimulants can help people better determine when their stimulant use is becoming a problem. Stimulants can potentially cause fatal overdoses; therefore, those who are experiencing bad reactions to these substances should seek medical attention.

All types of stimulants also have addictive qualities. Misusing them makes people more likely to become dependent on them. Stimulant addiction takes place when people use illegal substances or when they don’t use legally prescribed stimulants as directed.

Prevalence of Stimulant Misuse

Stimulant use statistics show that out of the entire adult U.S. population, 1.9% of people have misused prescription stimulants at some point in their life and an additional 0.2% had a stimulant use disorder. In particular, 18-34-year-olds are increasingly landing in the emergency room following stimulant abuse. It is especially likely that people will need emergency care when they mix stimulants with alcohol.

Prescription stimulant misuse happens when:

  • Someone takes their own prescription in unintended ways, such as taking higher doses or using it more frequently than instructed
  • A person takes someone else’s prescribed medicine
  • Someone takes stimulants for nonmedical reasons, such as getting high

People most often misuse prescription stimulants because they are looking for a way to improve their focus or boost their energy. As a result, stimulant abuse is common among students who are looking to boost their academic performance. Additionally, over three-quarters of people who used prescription stimulants for nonmedical purposes reported that they had first misused other substances. This means that people with a personal history of substance abuse may be more at risk for misusing stimulants. Anyone who misuses these drugs is more likely to develop substance use disorder and stimulant addiction.

People who are using stimulants to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) aren’t as likely to experience addiction and further substance abuse as long as they are taking their medications as prescribed. People with ADHD who take stimulants may actually be less likely to struggle with substance abuse later on, compared with ADHD patients who don’t take stimulants. However, other studies show that people who use prescription stimulants for nonmedical reasons are more likely to abuse other substances.

Signs and Symptoms of Stimulant Abuse

When people misuse drugs, a substance use disorder can develop. This happens when people become mentally dependent on a substance and can no longer control how often they use it. A person who has a stimulant use disorder may start displaying the following signs:

  • Taking increasing amounts of stimulant
  • Spending a lot of time and energy trying to find or use stimulants
  • Craving stimulants when they’re not using them
  • Losing interest in school, work or other activities
  • Giving up on responsibilities and relationships in order to use stimulants
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop using stimulants

Someone who starts to display these qualities may be struggling with mental dependence, and in extreme cases, addiction. A person who exhibits signs of stimulant abuse may need professional help in letting go of their substance use, since stimulants are hard to give up once someone has built up a habit of misusing them.

Side Effects of Stimulants

There are many reasons why people turn to stimulants. Stimulants can provide people with several positive effects, including:

  • Feelings of happiness
  • Increased ability to focus
  • Boosted memory and cognitive skills
  • More energy
  • Increased sexual desire
  • Feeling less hungry

The problem is that these desired effects also come with more negative ones. In particular, because of the addictive nature of stimulants, anyone who uses them for the above reasons rather than medical ones is placing themselves at risk of becoming physically and mentally dependent on them. Being aware of common side effects of stimulants helps people better understand when their use might be turning into a problem and when they might need to seek medical care.

While the negative effects of drugs like crystal meth and cocaine may be a little more well-known, it’s important to know that there are also long-term side effects of stimulants for ADHD. People taking these medications as prescribed don’t tend to experience as many negative consequences, but anyone worried about their medication should talk to their doctor to learn more.

Short-Term Side Effects

While stimulants can provide some enjoyable effects over the course of a few hours, they also frequently cause negative symptoms that can last for days or even up to a week after using stimulants. Some short-term side effects of stimulants include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • High heart rate
  • Faster breathing
  • Increased blood sugar levels
  • Fever
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cardiac failure
  • Seizures

Certain symptoms may plague anyone who takes stimulants, but they tend to be more likely in people who engage in stimulant abuse. Those who are taking stimulants with a prescription and are experiencing symptoms can talk to their doctor about trying a different medication or adjusting their dose.

Stimulant addiction and other more severe side effects may be more likely in people who use high doses, take stimulants frequently, or mix stimulants with other substances. For example, people who mix stimulants and alcohol are more likely to need medical care. One study found that 30% of people who had to go to the emergency room because of stimulants also had used alcohol. Furthermore, cocaine and methamphetamine are frequently cut with other substances, and people who use them typically do not know for sure how pure these substances are. The purity of the stimulant can affect the severity of the side effects.

Long-Term Side Effects

Long-term effects of stimulant use often appear in people who have been misusing stimulants over a long period of time, but they can also crop up after short periods of use. Some of these more serious long-term symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Dangerous levels of weight loss
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Problems with digestion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Muscle loss
  • Heart damage
  • Brain damage
  • Strokes
  • Seizures

People who take stimulants for nonmedical reasons are more likely to experience these harmful effects. When people use stimulants over a longer period, there is a risk they will develop paranoia or psychosis. High doses may also cause heart failure and seizures.

Long-term stimulant use can also sensitize people to its effects. This means that people will start to experience unpleasant side effects at increasingly lower doses. For example, if someone has a psychotic episode after using meth or cocaine, they may later have another even worse episode after taking a lower dose of the substance.

These long-term effects won’t get better if stimulant abuse goes untreated. The good news is that when people stop misusing stimulants, they can reverse some of this damage and prevent further complications. People who have difficulty giving up stimulants may consider speaking with a medical professional to learn more about treatment options that may help them break free from the cycle of addiction.

Commonly Abused Stimulants

Some of the most commonly abused stimulants are:

  • Methamphetamine: This stimulant floods the brain with dopamine and gives users an intense high. Unfortunately, it is very addictive, and meth abuse can lead to organ damage, brain damage and death.
  • Adderall: Adderall is a medication that is prescribed for ADHD and narcolepsy. It is safe for people to use as prescribed, but it can quickly lead to addiction when people take it illicitly. Adderall abuse is common among students who want to increase their focus and energy.
  • Cocaine: This substance is a popular street drug that gives people euphoric highs. Cocaine abuse is most common in 18-25 year olds. It can be very difficult for people to stop abusing cocaine on their own without outside help.

Stimulant Overdose Symptoms

People may experience a stimulant overdose when they take such high doses of the substance that they have a potentially fatal reaction to it. Stimulants were involved in about 15% of all drug overdose deaths in 2017. Many of these overdoses also involved opioids.

Signs of stimulant overdose may include:

  • Restlessness
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Fast breathing
  • Feeling confused, anxious or aggressive
  • Experiencing hallucinations
  • High fever
  • Muscle pains
  • Heart problems
  • Nausea, stomach pains and vomiting

If these more mild symptoms are not addressed, a stimulant overdose can lead to more serious symptoms, such as a heart attack, seizure, coma or death. People who think they may have taken too much of a given stimulant should seek medical help. While there is no specific drug that can treat a stimulant overdose, there are ways to help ease symptoms and provide life-saving care. Medical professionals can help provide support for people who are having heart problems and seizures.

Going through an overdose is a clear sign that you have become physically and psychologically dependent on stimulants. Recognizing that you may have a problem is the first step towards recovery. If you or someone you know has had an overdose or is displaying other signs of stimulant abuse, help is available. The Recovery Village Ridgefield has programs to help people safely detox from stimulants and learn how to live a substance-free life. Call today to learn more about how we can assist you or a loved one with recovery.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Methamphetamine.” Updated April 2019. Accessed August 18, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Misuse of Prescription Drugs: What Classes of Prescription Drugs are Commonly Misused?” Updated December 2018. Accessed August 18, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” Revised June 2018. Accessed August 18, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Central Nervous System Stimulants among Adults Aged 18 to 34 Increased between 2005 and 2011.” August 8, 2013. Accessed August 18, 2013.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders: Chapter 5 – Medical Aspects of Stimulant Use Disorders.” Treatment Improvement Protocol Series, 1999. Accessed August 18, 2019.

Sweeney, Christine T.; Sembower, Mark A.; Ertischek, Michelle D.; Shiffman, Saul; et al. “Nonmedical Use of Prescription ADHD Stimulants and Preexisting Patterns of Drug Abuse.” Journal of Addictive Diseases, January 2013. Accessed August 18, 2019.