Updated on December 6, 2023
6 min read

Dangers of "Study Drug" Abuse in College

What are Study Drugs?

Study drugs, like stimulants, enhance alertness by modulating dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels in the brain. An example is amphetamines, which have the potential for abuse, and are Schedule II prescription medications.

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

Why Do College Students Abuse Study Drugs?

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

Statistics on college students abusing study drugs include:1

  • 18 percent of students abused stimulants
  • 11 percent abused sedatives (e.g., Xanax)
  • 9 percent abused opioids (e.g., Vicodin or codeine)

College students between 18 and 24 years of age misuse stimulants for nonmedical reasons more than any other age group. Students believe taking these "smart drugs" will improve their academic performance, focus, and memory. However, studies show that students who do not misuse prescription drugs are more successful academically.2

Health Risks and Dangers of Prescription Study Aids

Using stimulants without a prescription can result in an increased likelihood of developing tolerance, dependence, and, ultimately, addiction. These risks are due to altered neurotransmitter levels, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine, disrupting your brain’s normal signaling pathways.

These changes can have lasting effects on reward circuits. As a result, you may experience short-term and long-term side effects, ranging 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
  • Fever, elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate
  • Abnormal or violent behavior
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Restlessness
  • Dry mouth
  • Decreased libido/Changes in sex drive
  • Impaired judgment
  • Sleep impairments
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in mood
  • Panic attacks
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions
  • Risk of death from an overdose

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)
  • Hypertension, 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
  • Death

Are Study Drugs Addictive?

Study drugs can become addictive if you take larger doses than prescribed, take the drugs more often, or take them for an extended period of time. If you take them in different ways than your doctor prescribed or take them without a prescription, you are also 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 because these individuals often overuse the drugs and combine them with other drugs, such as alcohol or sedatives.


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Commonly Misused Stimulants Among College Students

The most popular prescription stimulants used among college students include:

1. Adderall

Adderall is a prescription medication that effectively treats those with attention deficit disorder/ADHD and narcolepsy. It’s a combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine.

The tablet comes in instant-release (IR) and extended-release (XR) forms. Many college students illegally abuse this drug to aid in studying because it increases energy, alertness, focus, and productivity.

2. Ritalin

Ritalin also treats people with ADD, ADHD, and narcolepsy. It’s a methylphenidate and central nervous system (CNS) depressant.

Ritalin affects certain chemicals in the brain that influence impulses and hyperactivity. The drug is a common study aid used among college students because it increases focus and alertness.

3. Concerta

This medication contains methylphenidate, the same ingredient 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 XR last about seven hours, while the effects of IR last about four hours.

4. Vyvanse

Vyvanse 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.

5. Dexedrine

Dexedrine is the brand name for dextroamphetamine. As with the other substances 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.

6. Focalin

Focalin is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant to increase attention, alertness, and energy. A smaller dose of Focalin produces the same effect as a high dose of Ritalin.

7. Provigil (Modafinil)

Provigil is 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.3

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Combining Adderall and Alcohol

Using prescription stimulants illicitly to study is linked to higher levels of drug and alcohol use. Taking stimulants, such as Adderall, while drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning or a potentially fatal overdose.

Adderall numbs the effects of alcoholic beverages, allowing you to drink more. Many people who drink while taking stimulants often consume more than intended and do not feel drunk,  leading to increased tolerance and dependence.

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.4

In addition, other complications of mixing substances 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

According to a recent study, most Adderall users also used other substances, including alcohol.5

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 help. The earlier you seek help, the less likely it is that your child will develop a drug addiction as they age.

Common treatment options for prescription study drug addiction may include:

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Study drugs alter brain chemistry and are often abused by students wanting to stay awake longer, increase focus, and enhance productivity. Common study drugs include Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Xanax, and Modafinil. 

Especially when combined with alcohol, prescription drugs can cause poisoning, withdrawal symptoms, and overdose. Study drugs can also become addictive, especially when consumed in higher doses than prescribed. 

If a person you know is abusing study drugs, it’s essential to provide support with the appropriate resources.

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Updated on December 6, 2023
12 sources cited
Updated on December 6, 2023
  1. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018.
  2. Bugbee et al. “Substance Use, Academic Performance, and Academic Engagement Among High School Seniors.” Journal of School Health, 2019.
  3. The Misuse of stimulants remains a top concern on college campuses.” Ohio State News, 2018.
  4. Graff Low K., and Gendaszek, A.E., “Illicit use of psychostimulants among college students: A preliminary study.” Psychology, Health & Medicine, 2023.
  5. Cook, C. “Nonprescription Stimulant Use at a Public University: Students’ Motives, Experiences, and Guilt.” Journal of Drug Issues, 2021.
  6. Abelman, D.D. “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, 2017.
  7. Hernandez, S.H., and Nelson, L.S. “Prescription Drug Abuse: Insight Into the Epidemic.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2010.
  8. “Methylphenidate: MedlinePlus Drug Information.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019.
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” NIDA, 2018.
  10. Phillips, E.L., and McDaniel, A.E. “College Prescription Drug Study Key Findings Report.” Center for the Study of Student Life, The Ohio State University, 2018.
  11. Prescription Drug Misuse.” The University of Texas at Austin University Health Services, 2022.
  12. Sussman et al. “Misuse of ‘Study Drugs:" Prevalence, Consequences, and Implications for Policy.” Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, BioMed Central, 2006.

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