Stimulants include illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as prescription drugs such as Ritalin® and Adderall®
What are stimulants?
Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Stimulants include a wide range of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription medications including Ritalin®, Adderall®, Modafinil® and others.
Cocaine is a chemical isolated from the South American coca plant. As a street drug, it often appears as a fine, white, crystalline powder. Cocaine that has been processed into rock crystals is called crack. The crystals are heated and smoked. It is also known as Coke, C, Snow, Powder, or Blow.
Methamphetamine usually takes the form of a white, bitter-tasting powder (that easily dissolves in water) or a pill. Crystal methamphetamine is a form of the drug that looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. It is also known as Meth, Chalk, Ice, or Crystal.
How are stimulants used?
Historically, stimulants were used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, neurological disorders, and other ailments. But as their potential for misuse and addiction became apparent, the medical use of stimulants waned. Now, stimulants are prescribed to treat only a few health conditions, including ADHD, narcolepsy, and occasionally depression in those who have not responded to other treatments.
Both methamphetamine and cocaine come in different forms and can be injected, snorted, swallowed, or smoked. The duration and intensity of the drug depends upon how it is administered. Certain methods (such as smoking and injection) put the substance into the bloodstream very quickly, thus increasing its addictive potential and the likelihood of overdose and other health consequences.
All stimulants work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, movement, and attention. The therapeutic effect of stimulants is achieved by slow and steady increases of dopamine, which are similar to the way dopamine is naturally produced in the brain.
When taken in doses and via routes other than those prescribed, prescription stimulants can increase brain dopamine in a stronger and more rapid manner (similar to illicit stimulants such as methamphetamine), thereby producing euphoria and increasing the risk of addiction. Short-term effects of stimulant misuse can also include increased activity and talkativeness and a decreased appetite and need for sleep. Large amounts can cause erratic and sometimes violent behavior.
Some of the most frequent medical complications associated with stimulant misuse are cardiovascular effects, including disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks; neurological effects, including headaches, seizures, strokes, and coma; and gastrointestinal complications, including abdominal pain and nausea. Combining cocaine with other drugs, such as heroin or alcohol, can be dangerous and increases one’s risk of overdose.
Long-Term Health Consequences
Long-term misuse of stimulants can have major health consequences including addiction. It can also cause damage to the cardiovascular system, memory loss, aggression, and psychotic behavior. Both cocaine and methamphetamine use have been shown to increase the likelihood of contracting and transmitting infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. (NIDA)
Stimulant Use Disorder Treatments
Traditionally, the most effective treatments for stimulant use disorder are behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral and contingency-management interventions (which provide tangible incentives in exchange for engaging in treatment and maintaining abstinence).
In a 2021 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that a combination of a medication for opioid addiction and an antidepressant can help some people who use methamphetamine regularly cut back, a promising development in the treatment of stimulant use disorders.