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Adderall: Uses, Abuses & Side Effects

Adderall, prescription medication
Adderall is a prescription medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Pictured: 20-mg capsules of Adderall XR.
Credit: Patrick Mallahan III / Creative Commons

Adderall is a prescription medication used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Adderall, a brand name, is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which are central nervous system stimulants that are aimed at helping to restore the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Taking Adderall may help increase the ability to focus, pay attention and control behavior.

Amphetamine and dextroamphetamine can be habit-forming. People using Adderall should not take a larger dose, or take it more often or for a longer time than prescribed by a doctor. Also, abruptly stopping the medication can cause depression, fatigue, and sleep problems. This medication should not be sold or shared; doing so is not only dangerous, but also illegal.

Adderall is available as a tablet and as an extended-release capsule (Adderall XR). It comes in varying doses, depending on the size of the patient and the severity of symptoms. Dosages are recognizable by their varying shapes, colors, and sizes:

  • Adderall 5 mg – white to off-white tablet, round, flat-faced beveled edge tablet
  • Adderall 7.5 mg – blue tablet, oval, biconvex
  • Adderall 10 mg – blue tablet, round, biconvex
  • Adderall 12.5 mg – peach tablet, round, flat-faced beveled edge
  • Adderall 15 mg – peach tablet, oval, biconvex
  • Adderall 20 mg – peach tablet, round, biconvex
  • Adderall 30 mg – peach tablet, round, flat-faced beveled edge

According to the National Institutes of Health, the tablet is usually taken two to three times daily; the extended-release capsule is usually taken once daily.

Side effects

Dextroamphetamine and amphetamine may cause side effects, including::

  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
  • Headache
  • Changes in sex drive or ability
  • Dry mouth
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Some side effects can be serious, and the NIH says that anyone who experiences any of these symptoms should call their doctor immediately:

  • Fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Slow or difficult speech
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Weakness or numbness of an arm or leg
  • Seizures
  • Motor tics or verbal tics
  • Believing things that are not true
  • Feeling unusually suspicious of others
  • Hallucinating (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
  • Mania (frenzied or abnormally excited mood)
  • Aggressive or hostile behavior
  • Changes in vision or blurred vision
  • Fever
  • Blistering or peeling skin
  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling of the eyes, face, tongue, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Hoarseness

Who should not use Adderall

Adderall is not for everybody. It should not be used by patients with a history of glaucoma, severe anxiety or agitation, a personal or family history of tics, or Tourette syndrome. Stimulants can also cause sudden death in patients with congenital heart defects or serious heart problems. As a result, patients should alert their doctors if they have a history of heart disease, heart rhythm disorder, coronary artery disease, or heart attacks. Doctors should also be alerted if the patient has a history of high blood pressure, mental illness, peripheral vascular disease or seizure disorders.

Some drug interactions could be harmful. The NIH says that people should not take Adderall if they have taken an MAO inhibitor in the last two weeks.

[ADHD Drug May Spur Brain Changes, Study Suggests]

Adderall & children

For children with ADHD, or hyperactive-impulsive or inattentive symptoms that cause impairment and appear before the age of 7, Adderall can be considered part of a total treatment program. ADHD must be diagnosed through a series of tests that rule out other mental disorders. Other treatment measures will include psychological, educational and social aspects — drug treatments may not even be necessary.

Adderall is not intended for use in children who exhibit symptoms that are secondary to environmental factors or exhibit symptoms that indicate primary psychiatric disorders. When all other options have been exhausted, physicians will prescribe Adderall at doses that vary based on the severity of symptoms.

The long-term use of Adderall has not been evaluated in controlled trials, so it is to the discretion of the physician how long the child should take the drug. There is evidence that children ages 7-10 who were constantly medicated have a temporary slowing in growth rate.

 

[ADHD Medications: 5 Vital Questions and Answers]

Abuse and dependency

Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, which means there is a high risk for addiction or abuse. Amphetamines are extensively abused, as some patients will increase their dosages to levels higher than recommended. Chronic abuse is marked by severe rash, insomnia, irritability and personality changes. The most severe symptom of abuse is psychosis, which is often clinically indistinguishable from schizophrenia.

There is a rising trend of college students abusing Adderall and similar drugs, like Ritalin, to perform better on tests and papers. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that full-time college students were twice as likely as non-students to have used Adderall nonmedically. Affordable at roughly $6-$8 street value, it is easy for college students to get their hands on Adderall illegally.

Studies show that the rush of stimulants unleashes dopamine, triggering the brain’s reward system. The drugs also increase alertness, focus, and improve some types of memory. In people without ADHD, Adderall can help improve the learning of material that must be recalled days later, ideal for college exams. However, the results vary based on the student, and it is dangerous to take these so-called “smart drugs” due to the numerous side effects and danger of dependency.

Weight loss

Some people — especially college students — take Adderall as a diet pill. Adderall can cause weight loss because amphetamine speeds up the body's metabolism and lowers appetite. However, it also speeds up the heart and can cause irregular heartbeat and even cardiac arrest.

Any weight loss due to Adderall would likely be temporary. Weight gain would probably occur after stopping the use of Adderall. Also, taking Adderall without a prescription and for a purpose not prescribed can be dangerous.

Snorting Adderall

Many people who abuse Adderall snort the drug in order to intensify the high. Snorting or injecting the drug delivers it to the bloodstream in a more concentrated manner, compared to swallowing a tablet. Drug abusers also believe that because it is a prescription drug for children, it’s safer to abuse Adderall than drugs like cocaine or speed. This is, of course, not true, as prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as illegal drugs.

When snorting Adderall, side effects include respiratory problems, such as the destruction of the nasal and sinus cavities and lung tissue. Drug abusers can develop irregular heartbeats, problems with circulation, psychotic episodes, increased aggression and toxic shock. Prolonged use can cause developmental problems with the brain, negative changes in brain activity, and severe withdrawal problems like depression, psychosis, restlessness and agitation. Abusing the drug can also be fatal.

Overdose

Toxic symptoms from taking an overdose of Adderall can come at low doses. Initial signs of an overdose include restlessness, tremor, confusion, hallucinations and panic states. After this central stimulation, the patient will undergo fatigue, depression, and often cardiovascular and gastrointestinal symptoms. The NIH says that people should contact a medical professional immediately if they suspect that they or someone they know has overdosed on Adderall.

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