Adderall Side Effects, Risks & Dangers of Use

4 min read · 9 sections
Evidence-Based Care
Expert Staff

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What is Adderall?

Adderall is the brand name of the drug amphetamine-dextroamphetamine, a prescription medication primarily used to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, by enhancing concentration and focus levels. It is commonly abused as a weight loss drug, study drug, or recreationally as a party drug as well.

Adderall Statistics

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2013 reported that there were 1.4 million nonmedical users of prescription stimulants in the month prior to the survey. College students may be more prone to abusing Adderall than other demographics, in an effort to enhance their studies or “get ahead.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published that for the years 2006 and 2007, fulltime college students ages 18-22 were twice as likely to abuse Adderall than their peers who were not in college fulltime.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) saw a 650 percent spike in visits to emergency departments related to the abuse or misuse of Adderall from 2004-2011, and a 100 percent spike from 2009-2011.

Adderall Side Effects

infographic listing the side effects of adderallStimulants such as Adderall raise blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate, keeping users awake and stimulated while suppressing appetites. Regular use or abuse of Adderall can make changes in the structures of the brain and change the way emotions are regulated. They can also be hard on the heart muscles, lungs, vascular system, and other internal organs.

Even one-time use of Adderall may result in sudden cardiac death or a potential toxic overdose. Between 1999 and 2003, there were 25 reported fatalities and 54 additional serious medical issues related to the use of ADHD stimulant medications, CBS News publishes. Many of these cases did have prior or undiagnosed conditions that may have been contributing factors in their reactions to the drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety warning about the risk for potential sudden cardiac death when using Adderall, although confirmed cases are considered rare when the medication is used as intended.

Adderall is not always used as intended, however, and nonmedical use of the drug increases the odds for a negative outcome. Mixing Adderall with other drugs or alcohol increases the risks for potential hazardous side effects. Alcohol, for example, is a central nervous system depressant while Adderall is a stimulant. So Adderall may keep a person awake and potentially shut off the internal cues telling the body that it has had enough alcohol, causing someone to continue to drink. This can possibly result in alcohol poisoning as alcohol reaches toxic levels in the bloodstream. Mixing Adderall with other substances is never a good idea.

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Panic Attacks and Mood Disturbances

Adderall functions by increasing the presence of certain neurotransmitters in the brain and interfering with the way that some of these neurotransmitters are reabsorbed, creating a buildup. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are specifically affected. These chemical messengers are responsible for increasing energy levels, stimulating the brain, and creating feelings of pleasure. They “talk” to the parts of the brain responsible for the regulation of emotions, internal motivation, and reward.

As these regions of the brain and their messengers are artificially altered by drugs such as Adderall, the chemical structures begin to slowly change. The brain may stop making as much dopamine on its own, for instance, since it has become accustomed to the stimulant drug’s interference in its regular production. Since Adderall has ensured that dopamine remains present, the brain will make less of it. When Adderall then leaves the bloodstream and dopamine levels drop, the good feelings will also disappear. Anxiety, depression, and panic may set in. These symptoms are typical of Adderall withdrawal, which can occur after dependence has formed from chronic use of the drug.

Adderall is considered a highly addictive drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which classifies it as a Schedule II controlled substance, the highest level of control for a drug with accepted medicinal uses.

Widespread Symptoms

Side Effects of AdderallWithdrawal symptoms from Adderall can be uncomfortable and include both physical and psychological side effects. Someone addicted to Adderall may have trouble sleeping, feel jittery and irritable, notice a change in appetite, feel extremely fatigued, have drug cravings, feel down, and even potentially have thoughts of suicide. If Adderall is used or abused for a long period of time, it can take some time to reverse these changes in the brain and for the neurotransmitter levels to return to their previous levels prior to the drug’s introduction. Often, medical detox is the safest and smoothest way to remove the drug from the body and provide the necessary support during recovery.

Drastic mood swings or shifts in behavior may also accompany Adderall use. In some cases, the introduction of stimulant drugs may trigger panic attacks or even psychosis, which may include hallucinations or delusions. Heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature may spike even higher as the “fight or flight” reflex is turned on. A 2006 study published in The New York Times estimated that about one in 400 patients might suffer from suicidal thoughts or psychotic behaviors when taking ADHD stimulant medications even as directed. The risks may go up with nonmedical or recreational use.

Cardiovascular Issues and Gastrointestinal Problems

Because Adderall raises blood pressure and heart rate, over time, this may damage or weaken parts of the cardiovascular system in the body, which includes the heart, lungs, arteries, and veins. These vital organs and vessels are forced to work harder due to the drug’s interaction in the body and may become strained with long-term use.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, and tachycardia, an elevated heart rate, are commonly reported with stimulant drug use or abuse. The lungs may also be damaged with Adderall use, resulting in reduced lung capacity, trouble breathing, and possible pulmonary disease. Chest pain, irregular heart rate, and heart palpitations may also be present in someone using Adderall. For someone who may already have a heart condition or underlying medical issue, Adderall can be particularly dangerous, and its use may result in heart attack, seizures, or stroke.

Muscles in the digestive tract are slowed down by Adderall use, which may lead to constipation, abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal issues. The need to urinate more often may also be a side effect of Adderall use, as may nausea and diarrhea.

Since Adderall decreases appetite, it is also possible to suffer from unhealthy weight loss or even unintentional anorexia while taking the drug. Not eating enough can result in malnutrition that can affect many vital organs and have serious side effects on the body. Couple that with the difficulty sleeping Adderall use may induce, and the body and brain may have trouble functioning at normal rates. Kidneys and other organs may also be damaged by Adderall use, resulting in potential kidney failure.

Adderall abuse can lead to side effects in anyone, regardless of age or gender; however, most intoxicating substances have varied effects in people based on age, weight, and gender.

Hormones, body fat percentage, and more can vary greatly between men and women, and these physiological differences can change how drugs like Adderall affect a person on an individual level, whether the drug is taken as prescribed or abused for nonmedical reasons.

Why Does Adderall Affect Women Differently?

Adderall and Side Effects in Women The Food and Drug Administration’s information on Adderall notes that average body weight among women influences dose administration because it changes the bioavailability of one of the amphetamines in Adderall. When doses were not based on body mass, the amount of amphetamine a woman actually processed was 20-30 percent higher; when the dose was adjusted, the amount of the amphetamine normalized and produced similar results across genders. However, two other amphetamines found in Adderall were not influenced by age or gender.

Some medical studies have shown that a woman’s menstrual cycle, primarily influenced by estrogen, can affect how bioavailable Adderall is to her body. During the follicular phase, which is the first 14 days of the menstrual cycle, Adderall has a greater impact on the body, including negative side effects. Women reported feeling high and also experiencing stronger cravings for, and physical dependency on, Adderall. The greater presence of estrogen during this time may enhance the effects of the amphetamines because estrogen can also trigger the release of dopamine in the brain.

One side effect that some women seek out when they begin to abuse Adderall is weight loss. Because Adderall increases energy but reduces appetite, women who abuse this substance eat less and may exercise more intensely. This causes rapid weight loss, but shedding several pounds quickly can be dangerous; anorexia can cause cardiovascular damage, liver damage, and dramatically slow metabolism.

Taking nonmedical doses of Adderall, for weight loss or other reasons, can cause side effects like:

  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Mood swings

Women who are pregnant should not take Adderall. While only studies in pregnant animals have shown side effects, the drug is not considered safe to take while pregnant. Other, illicit amphetamines such as crystal meth can harm fetuses and infants, leading to low birth weight, premature birth, and withdrawal symptoms after birth. These can all lead to higher infant mortality rates.

Conversely, Adderall has been found in some small studies to be an effective treatment for negative symptoms associated with menopause. While most women are prescribed hormone replacements during this time, some women do not receive benefits from these, and other women cannot take these supplements because of other health conditions. Adderall has, in a small study, been shown to be effective in treating memory, attention problems, and concentration issues associated with hormonal changes. Since estrogen and dopamine are tied together, an improved sense of self-esteem could also alleviate some of the physical complaints. Adderall has not received approval for this off-label use, however.

Recovery from Side Effects of Use

Many of the possible medical and mental health issues associated with Adderall use or abuse may be the result of an underlying or preexisting condition. Legitimate Adderall use should be monitored by a medical professional, and recreational use can have serious and potentially dangerous consequences.

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