Dangers of "Study Drug" Abuse in College

College students commonly misuse prescription “study aids,” such as stimulants, to improve their concentration, study, party, lose weight, or relieve negative mental health symptoms. However, abusing these drugs without a prescription is dangerous and can lead to abuse, addiction, and health issues.
Evidence Based
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What are Study Drugs?

College students commonly misuse prescription “study drugs,” such as stimulants, to improve their concentration, study, party, lose weight, or relieve negative mental health symptoms. However, taking these medications without a prescription and for non-medical purposes is very dangerous and can lead to fatal consequences.

A study from the University of Texas found that 18 percent of students abused stimulants, 11 percent abused sedatives (e.g., Xanax), and 9 percent abused opioids (e.g., Vicodin or codeine).

Stimulant medications heighten alertness by increasing dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels in the brain. Amphetamines are Schedule II prescription medications, which means they have the potential for abuse.

Medical indications for prescription stimulant use include:

  • To treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder
  • To treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a chronic condition that causes attention problems, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness
  • To achieve short-term weight loss in overweight or obese individuals
Graphic of four pills to display party drugs.

Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Stimulants

College students between 18 and 24 years of age misuse stimulants for nonmedical reasons more than any other age group. A majority of these students use prescription stimulants illegally to study, party, or work. Some even take higher doses of the drugs, which allows them to stay up all night and study before important exams.

Students believe that taking these "smart drugs" will improve their academic performance, focus, and memory. However, this is not the case. Studies show that students who do not misuse prescription stimulants are actually more successful academically.

Stimulants are habit-forming and can lead to abuse or addiction, so they should never be taken without a prescription.

Commonly Misused Stimulants Among College Students

The most popular prescription stimulants used among college students include:

  • Adderall — this medication is a combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine. The tablet comes in two different forms, including instant-release (IR) and extended-release (XR). It effectively treats those with ADHD and narcolepsy. However, many college students tend to illegally abuse this drug to aid in studying because it increases energy, alertness, focus, and productivity.
  • Ritalin — this drug is a methylphenidate and central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It affects certain chemicals in the brain that influence impulses and hyperactivity. Similar to Adderall, Ritalin also treats people with ADD, ADHD, and narcolepsy. The drug is a common study aid used among college students because it increases focus and alertness.
  • Concerta — this medication contains methylphenidate, the same drug in Ritalin. Many people confuse Adderall and Concerta because they produce similar effects. However, Concerta lasts even longer than other ADHD medications (the effects peak between six and 10 hours). The effects of Adderall XR last about seven hours, while the effects of Adderall IR last about four hours.
  • Vyvanse — this medication is becoming increasingly popular as a college study aid because it increases attention while decreasing hyperactivity and impulsiveness. It is also prescribed to treat ADHD.
  • Dexedrine — this drug is the brand name for dextroamphetamine. As with the other stimulants listed above, it is used to treat ADHD and sleep disorders. College students use it as a study drug because it promotes wakefulness and focus.
  • Focalin — this is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant used to increase attention, alertness, and energy. A smaller dose of Focalin produces the same effect as a high dose of Ritalin.
  • Provigil (Modafinil) — a nootropic and central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that treats sleep disorders by improving wakefulness. Nootropics are drugs that enhance cognitive function, memory, motivation, and creativity. Adrafinil and Phenylpiracetam are other nootropic drugs that are commonly abused for studying purposes on college campuses.

79% of college students who misuse prescription stimulants said they are easy to obtain from peers.

Health Risks and Dangers of Prescription Study Aids

There are many health risks and complications associated with abusing prescription study aids.

For example, you may experience short-term and long-term side effects. These effects can range from mild to severe, depending on the dosage and how long you have been taking the drug.

Short-Term Side Effects of Stimulants

Misusing prescription stimulants as a study aid is extremely dangerous, possibly even life-threatening. Short-term effects of stimulant misuse and abuse include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate
  • Irregular or violent behavior
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Restlessness
  • Dry mouth
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Impaired judgment
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased anxiety
  • Changes in mood
  • Panic attacks
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Possible death from an overdose (taking too high of doses)

Long-Term Side Effects of Stimulants

If stimulant misuse leads to abuse or addiction, dangerous side effects can develop.

Long-term, adverse effects of stimulants include:

  • Extreme psychological dependence on the drug (addiction)
  • High blood pressure, which can cause a heart attack
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Permanent damage to blood vessels in the heart and brain
  • Epilepsy
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Disorientation
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Weight loss and malnutrition
  • Psychosis
  • Strokes
  • Breathing problems
  • Lung damage
  • Brain damage
  • Death

Overdosing from stimulants, such as Adderall, is also possible. Common signs of an overdose include fever, confusion, seizures, vomiting, coma, dangerously high body temperature, heart failure, and death.

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Combining Adderall and Alcohol

Using prescription stimulants illicitly to study is linked to higher levels of drug and alcohol use.

In fact, a college in Maine discovered that 35.5 percent of students take prescription amphetamines illegally. Of those, 24 percent use the drugs to study, and over 19 percent of them combine stimulants and alcohol while partying.

Combining stimulants, such as Adderall, with alcohol is dangerous and can lead to serious health complications. For example, Adderall numbs the effects of alcohol, allowing you to drink more. In other words, many people who drink while taking stimulants often consume more alcohol than intended and do not feel drunk. This can lead to alcohol poisoning or a potentially fatal overdose.

In addition, other complications of combining alcohol and Adderall include:

  • Heart Problems — this includes increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, as well as an irregular heartbeat.
  • Behavioral Problems — aggressive behavior, irritability, and extreme mood swings are also possible.

Almost 90 percent of college students who took Adderall in the past year for non-medical reasons were past month binge drinkers. Of those, more than half were already heavy alcohol users.

Pill bottle and skull

Abuse and Addiction

Stimulants can become addictive if you take larger doses than prescribed, take the drugs more often, or take them for an extended period of time. In addition, if you take them in different ways than your doctor prescribed or take them without a prescription, you are at a higher risk of developing an addiction.

For college students who take them illegally and for nonmedical purposes, dependence can develop quickly. Death from an overdose is also more likely. This is because these individuals often overuse the drugs and combine them with other drugs, such as alcohol or sedatives.

Popular slang terms for prescription stimulants include Speed, Uppers, and Vitamin R.

Graphic of head filled with gear

When To Seek Treatment

To prevent abuse and addiction to prescription study drugs, you should speak with your child about the dangers of illegal stimulant use. This begins with informing them about the health risks, including short-term effects, long-term effects, and the potential for a fatal overdose.

If you suspect your child is misusing or abusing stimulants to aid in studying, it is crucial to get them treatment. The earlier you seek treatment, the less likely it is that your child will develop a drug addiction as they age.

Common treatment options for prescription study drug abuse may include:


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Resources

Abelman, Dor David. “Mitigating Risks of Students Use of Study Drugs through Understanding Motivations for Use and Applying Harm Reduction Theory: a Literature Review.” Harm Reduction Journal, BioMed Central, 6 Oct. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639593/

Hernandez, S H, and L S Nelson. “Prescription Drug Abuse: Insight Into the Epidemic.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, vol. 88, no. 3, Apr. 2010, pp. 307–317., doi:10.1038/clpt.2010.154.

“Methylphenidate: MedlinePlus Drug Information.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682188.html

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” NIDA, 6 June 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants

Phillips, E. L. & McDaniel, A. E. (2018). “College Prescription Drug Study Key Findings Report.” Center for the Study of Student Life, The Ohio State University, 2018. Columbus, Ohio.

“Prescription Drug Misuse.” Study Drugs, healthyhorns.utexas.edu/studydrugs.html

“Short- & Long-Term Side Effects of Ritalin & Stimulants in Children - Drug-Free World.” Foundation for a Drug-Free World, www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/ritalin/the-vicious-effects-of-prescription-stimulants.html

Sussman, Steve, et al. “Misuse of ‘Study Drugs:" Prevalence, Consequences, and Implications for Policy.” Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, BioMed Central, 9 June 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1524735/

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Updated on: September 22, 2020
Author
Alyssa Hill
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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