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Updated on September 26, 2022

Amphetamines Uses, Effects, and Addiction

Amphetamines

Amphetamines are a class of synthetic drugs that have stimulant properties. Using them causes increased alertness and wakefulness. Some people abuse them to enhance academic or athletic performance, work longer, or stay awake.

People use amphetamines illicitly for their pleasurable effects. These effects are produced by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.

Amphetamines were first synthesized in the late 19th century.

Medical professionals prescribed them to treat conditions such as depression and nasal congestion. During the Second World War, soldiers used them to stay awake for extended periods of time.

Researchers soon recognized the addictive properties of amphetamines during the middle of the past century. Following a series of fatal overdoses, the FDA restricted their use in the 1970s.

At this moment, the FDA has approved amphetamines only for the treatment of:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Narcolepsy (a sleep disorder)
  • Obesity

In 2018, 1.8% of individuals over the age of 12 had misused prescription amphetamines during the previous 12 months.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health
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Which Drugs are Amphetamines?

Amphetamine comes in two forms: d-amphetamine and l-amphetamine. Amphetamine also refers to methamphetamine, a chemically-related drug.

Amphetamines used for medical purposes include:

  • D-amphetamine stimulates the Central Nervous System (CNS) to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.
  • L-amphetamine has more effects on the body rather than the CNS. It's only used in combination with dextroamphetamine. Although less potent than d-amphetamine, it's a powerful stimulant in its own right.
  • Mixed amphetamine salts — is a 3 to 1 combination of d-amphetamine and l-amphetamine. This combination is more effective in the treatment of ADHD than dextroamphetamine alone. The ADHD medication Adderall is one of the better-recognized brands.
  • Methamphetamine is also approved for the treatment of ADHD, but rarely used. Medical professionals may also prescribe methamphetamine to treat obesity. It's available in both liquid and crystal form.

The term “amphetamine-type stimulants” refers to substances that are chemically similar to amphetamines. One prominent example here is methylphenidate (Ritalin).

Illegal Amphetamines

Illegal amphetamines are amphetamines sold without a prescription (also known as "street amphetamines").

They come in various forms, including crystal, pills, powder, paste and liquid. Methods of consumption include smoking, swallowing, snorting, dabbing onto gums, and injection.

Examples of illegal amphetamines include:

  • Dextroamphetamine Dextroamphetamine may be sold illegally under names such as dexies, uppers, and kiddie-speed.
  • Mixed amphetamine salts — Street names include addies, beans, bennies, pep pills, and black beauties.
  • Methamphetamine — This can be sold as both a liquid or crystal. In its crystal form, its known as meth, crystal, ice, speed, and wax. Street names for the liquid variant include leopard's blood, liquid red, ox blood, red speed.

Amphetamine-type stimulants sold on the street include:

  • MDMD Street names include ecstasy, ex, and molly.
  • Pseudophedrine Pseudoephedrine is referred to as crank, speed, meth, and suda.
  • Synthetic cathinones These are known as bath salts, white lightening, cloud nine, and Scarface.

In 2018, almost 1% of individuals over the age of 12 had used methamphetamine at least once during the previous 12 months.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health

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Are Amphetamines Addictive?

Amphetamines are highly addictive. The Drug Enforcement Agency has categorized them as Schedule II substances. Schedule II means they have high abuse potential but also have medical uses.

Prescription use of amphetamines to treat ADHD or narcolepsy involves only low doses.

Individuals who use amphetamines for recreational purposes tend to take much higher doses. They may also inject or snort the drug, rather than swallow a tablet whole.

Amphetamine increases dopamine, the brain's reward chemical. As tolerance increases, this can lead to taking higher doses to attain the same effect. This increases the likelihood of dependence.

Stopping amphetamine consumption after long term use results in withdrawal symptoms.

Mild dependence can occur while using the drug as prescribed. More severe dependence and withdrawal symptoms come from abuse.

Side Effects of Amphetamines

Desirable effects of amphetamines include euphoria, alertness, and increased energy. Because of this, some use amphetamines to get high or to enhance their physical and academic performance.

Adderall in particular is extremely popular on college campuses.

Amphetamine use can have life-threatening short- and long-term side effects.

Short-Term Side Effects

Some of the less severe short-term side effects of amphetamines at lower doses may include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Elevated rate of breathing
  • Increase in body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dryness of mouth
  • Excessive talkativeness

An amphetamine overdose can be fatal. Besides the symptoms above, other overdose symptoms include:

  • Cardiovascular problems including irregular heartbeat, stroke, and heart attack
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Restlessness
  • Stomach issues like nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Psychosis

Long-Term Side Effects

Long-term use of amphetamine can lead to addiction. Addiction to amphetamines is devastating for interpersonal relations and adversely impacts work life.

Other long-term effects of amphetamine abuse include:

  • Higher risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia, violent behavior, and suicidal thoughts
  • Increased risk of psychosis
  • Memory loss
  • Reduced learning ability
  • Reduced mood
  • Impaired impulse control
  • Weight loss
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular issues
  • Heightened risk of stroke
  • Increased risk of tooth decay and tooth loss
  • Excessive itchiness and skin picking resulting in lesions and abscesses

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Symptoms of Addiction

Addiction is an inability to control drug use despite its negative consequences.

Key symptoms include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and intense drug cravings after stopping use.

Another symptom of addiction is tolerance. Tolerance means needing higher doses to achieve the same pleasurable effects.

Other core symptoms include:

  • Persisting with drug use despite repeated efforts to reduce intake
  • Inability to limit the frequency or dose of amphetamine intake
  • Neglecting social, recreational, and work-related activities in favor of drug use
  • Intense cravings for amphetamine
  • Spending time obtaining, using, or recovering from drug use
  • Having financial difficulties due to drug-related expenses
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Tooth decay
  • Skin sores
  • Susceptibility to infections

Risk factors for Addiction

Various factors, can predispose a person to addiction. These include:

  • Stability of family environment
  • Drug use by family members
  • History of psychiatric problems or trauma at a young age
  • Use of amphetamines by peers
  • Lower education levels
  • A desire to engage in risky behaviors
  • Use of other drugs or alcohol
  • Age amphetamine use began
  • Social isolation or interpersonal difficulties
  • Lower socioeconomic status

Besides these factors, heritability also plays a role. There are certain genes involved in mediating the action of amphetamines.

Treatment Options

The FDA has not approved any medications to treat amphetamine addiction. Treatment involves different forms of therapies.

Both outpatient and inpatient facilities can treat amphetamine addiction but inpatient treatment is preferred.

Detoxification ("detox") is the first step in the treatment of amphetamine addiction. Detox means purging the drug from the body while managing withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment at a detox center involves constant medical supervision. It may also require medications to treat the withdrawal symptoms as they arise.

Following detox, treatment involves addressing the causes underlying the addiction.

Treatment for amphetamine addiction involves various forms of therapy, such as:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy — helps people to identify thoughts and behaviors that lead to drug use. Participants learn ways to cope with addiction and avoid relapse.
  • Contingency management — uses positive reinforcement for maintaining sobriety. This involves monetary or other rewards (e.g., gift vouchers). This is a short-term strategy to ensure abstinence while individuals acquire skills to resist drug use.
  • Matrix Model — involves the use of multiple approaches according to the needs of the patient. Some of these include individual and group therapy, family therapy, 12-step programs, and urine testing.

Amphetamine addiction has devastating social, physical, and mental consequences. Overcoming it without professional help can be difficult. Find treatment today.

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Resources

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  1. Winslow, Bradford T., Voorhees, Kenton I., and Pehl, Katherine A. "Methamphetamine abuse." American family physician. Oct 2007.
  2. Heal, David J et al. “Amphetamine, past and present--a pharmacological and clinical perspective.” Journal of psychopharmacology. Jun 2013.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Annual Report." Aug 2019.
  4. Berman, Steven M., et al. "Potential adverse effects of amphetamine treatment on brain and behavior: a review." Molecular psychiatry Feb 2009.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is Methamphetamine?” NIDA, May 2019.
  6. Berger, Fred K. “Substance Use - Amphetamines: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.

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