Prescription stimulants

Learn about prescription stimulants, their effects and health risks.

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About prescription stimulants

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

They are generally used to treat particular medical conditions, such as:

  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • sleeping disorders like narcolepsy (an uncontrollable need to sleep)

Prescription stimulants include:

  • amphetamine
  • methylphenidate

Because prescription stimulants can increase alertness, energy and focus, they can sometimes be used improperly by people who haven't been prescribed these drugs by their health care provider. Certain groups may be more likely to use this type of drug improperly, including:

  • athletes
  • performers
  • high school and college students

Rates of improper use have been rising among these groups.

Short-term effects of prescription stimulants

Short-term side effects of prescription stimulants can include:

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

Long-term effects of prescription stimulants

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

  • anxiety
  • sleep disorders
  • aggression and anger
  • suspicion and paranoia (distrust of others)

Prescription stimulant dependence and withdrawal

If you take stimulants regularly for long periods of time, you risk becoming physically dependent. This is because the body gets used to a regular supply of the drug. If the drug is stopped (withdrawn), or the dose lowered, the body experiences withdrawal symptoms.

If a person is physically dependent on the drug, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have a substance use disorder. Substance use disorder refers to the obsessive use of a drug despite negative consequences.

Symptoms of prescription stimulant withdrawal can include:

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

The severity of withdrawal and how long it lasts depends on which prescription stimulant was used, how much and for how long.

Withdrawal symptoms can be minimized if patients consult their health care provider about reducing doses of stimulant medications gradually.

Problematic prescription stimulant use

The risks of problematic stimulant use include substances use disorder, overdose and even death.

Taking high doses of a prescription stimulant may result in:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • increased risk of seizures
  • psychotic episodes
  • dangerously high body temperature
  • overdose
  • increased potential for heart attack and stroke

Prescription stimulants should not be mixed with other medications unless specifically instructed 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:

  • irregular heart beat
  • dangerously high blood pressure

Combining prescription stimulants with alcohol can lead to serious health risks, including overdose and possibly death. This is because stimulants counteract the depressant (relaxing) effects of alcohol. You're more likely to drink too much too quickly because the effects are less noticeable, increasing your risk of alcohol overdose.

Stimulant use disorder

When someone has a substance use disorder to a stimulant, they will crave the drug and continue using it despite the harmful effects it's causing. The drug becomes the focus of their feelings, thoughts, and activities.

Stimulant use disorder causes changes in your brain and body. Behavioural therapies can be effective for treating prescription stimulant use disorder. These therapies focus on changing behaviour and teaching the skills needed to cope with this form of problematic substance use disorder.

Help prevent problematic prescription stimulant use

You can prevent the possibility of problematic prescription stimulant use and substance use disorder with the following guidelines.

Use your medication properly, by:

  • using all medications exactly as directed by your health care provider, including:
    • taking the right dose at the right time
    • following the dosing instructions provided by your health care provider
    • never changing your dose or discontinuing use without consulting with your health care provider
  • making sure your health care provider is aware if you have a history of alcohol or problematic drug use
  • asking your health care provider about your medication, especially if you're unsure about its effects
  • making sure your health care provider is aware of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs
    • this will help you to avoid any harmful drug interactions

Keep your medication safe to help prevent misuse by others by:

  • never sharing your medication with anyone else
    • this is illegal and may also cause serious harm or death to the other person
  • keeping track of the amount of pills remaining in a package
  • returning unused medication to the pharmacy for safe disposal
    • this prevents any possibility of illegal use and protects the environment from contamination
  • storing stimulants in a safe place to prevent theft, problematic use or accidental exposure

Help for substance use disorder

If you or someone you know is struggling with problematic drug use, help is available.

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