The term “amphetamine” refers to a group of chemically related stimulants. First synthesized in the 1880s, amphetamines originally were used as nasal decongestants, weight suppressants, and to help people stay awake. They have been prescribed to soldiers for alertness in all wars since their discovery. In 1965, the potential for rapid and serious addiction prompted the U.S. government to restrict access to the drug. Today, while many of these drugs are prescribed by licensed health care providers, the amphetamines available on the black market are generally produced illegally.
Amphetamines are known as “uppers” and “speed,” as they speed up the messages going between the brain and the body. Some types of amphetamines are legally prescribed by doctors to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (where a person has an uncontrollable urge to sleep). Amphetamines usually come in the form of pills.
Effects of Amphetamines
Stimulants have been abused for both “performance enhancement” and recreational purposes (i.e. to get high). For the former they suppress appetite (resulting in weight loss), increase wakefulness, and improve focus and attention. The euphoric effects of stimulants are increased when the pills are crushed and then sniffed or injected. Some abusers dissolve the tablets in water and inject the mixture. Complications from this method of use can arise because some of the ingredients in illegal tablets don’t dissolve and can block the small blood vessels.
Signs of Amphetamine Abuse
All stimulants work by increasing dopamine levels in the brain — dopamine is a brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) associated with pleasure. The therapeutic effect of stimulants is achieved by a steady increase of dopamine, similar to the way that dopamine is produced by the brain. The doses prescribed by physicians start low and increase gradually until a therapeutic effect is reached. However, when taken in doses other than those prescribed, amphetamines can increase brain dopamine in a rapid and uncontrolled manner disrupting normal communication between brain cells, producing a temporary sense of euphoria and increasing the risk of addiction.
Amphetamines affect the brain, heart, lungs and other organs. Users experience feelings of increased alertness, excitement, restlessness and sometimes an unrealistic sense of power and euphoria. The physical effects include an increased breathing and heart rate, an increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, jaw clamping and decreased appetite. These effects last six hours or even longer, in some cases.
Larger doses of amphetamines may result in fever, sweating, headaches, blurred vision and dizziness. Very high doses may produce an irregular heartbeat, chest pain, tremors, loss of coordination, seizures, high fever, heart failure, strokes, and collapse and death from burst blood vessels in the brain.
Other signs of amphetamine abuse include aggression, mood swings, irritability, sleeping disorders and cravings. Long-term symptoms include dysthymia, a mood disorder which features a chronic depressed or irritable mood.
Other symptoms may include eating and sleeping disturbances, fatigue and poor self-esteem, depression, mood swings, cravings, lethargy and sleeping difficulties.
Health Risks of Amphetamine Abuse
Stimulants can increase blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and decrease sleep and appetite (which can lead to malnutrition). Repeated use can lead to feelings of hostility and paranoia. At high doses, amphetamines can lead to serious cardiovascular complications, including stroke.
One of the most dangerous aspects of amphetamine abuse is the potential for addiction.
Over time, amphetamine abuse may result in psychotic behaviour, violence, aggression, hallucinations and seizures. Other effects include malnutrition due to suppressed appetite, and increased susceptibility to illness because of poor diet, lack of sleep, and an unhealthy environment. Users who inject the drug risk infections such as hepatitis, AIDS, and blocked blood vessels that can cause kidney damage, lung problems, strokes and other tissue injury.
Amphetamines Withdrawal Symptoms
After the drug’s effects wear off, amphetamine users often experience severe exhaustion, troubled sleep, extreme hunger and depression. These withdrawal symptoms diminish and disappear within several days but can persist for weeks or longer in some people. It can take a long period of time (six months to a year) before the body is sufficiently replenished and normal functioning returns.
Withdrawal for heavy users usually begins two to three days after the crash, and can last for a period of months.
Prolonged amphetamine abuse can cause a number of other problems, including:
- Toxic psychosis
- Physiological and behavioural disorders
- Pounding heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Mood or mental change
- Unusual tiredness or weakness
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Repetitive motor activity
- Convulsions, coma, and death
- Mental illness
- Skin disorders
- Vitamin deficiency
- Flush or pale skin
- Loss of coordination and physical collapse
Types of Amphetamines
- Ritalin, Concerta (Methylphenidate) Ritalin and Concerta are a brand name of the amphetamine product Methylphenidate. It may be legally prescribed by doctors to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Methylphenidate has been approved by the U.S. FDA to be used as prescribed under the careful supervision of medical professionals and for its intended purpose. The FDA has also issued several safety warnings about this medication, and Methylphenidate abuse is considered dangerous and possibly life-threatening. Find out about how we treat Ritalin/Concerta abuse here.
- Adderall Adderall is the brand name of a product that is a combination of the stimulants amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Adderall has been approved by the U.S. FDA to be prescribed for treatment of narcolepsy and ADHD. A significant number of warnings have been issued by the FDA regarding the abuse potential of Adderall and other prescription stimulants if not used correctly under a qualified physician’s supervision. In several countries, warnings regarding possible cardiac/cardiovascular risks of using stimulants to treat ADHD use have been issued. Find out about how we treat Adderall abuse here.
- Ephedrine Ephedrine is a stimulant frequently used in products for the treatment of breathing problems, asthma, allergies, and sinus congestion. Ephedrine is a key ingredient in methamphetamine, which is illegal. It has also been used in various diet products, which have varying legal status in different countries.
Signs and Dangers of Amphetamine Abuse
While several hallucinogenic drugs can result in intermittent psychosis years after the individual has discontinued use, methamphetamine related psychosis is increasingly proving to be the most persistent and chronic drug-related psychosis due to the long lasting and sometimes irreversible molecular, structural, and chemical changes that meth can cause in a user’s brain.
Symptoms of amphetamine use and psychosis
Amphetamine psychosis can occur from the overuse/excessive dosing of any amphetamine-based stimulant. Symptoms of withdrawal for amphetamines commonly include delusions of persecution and other pronounced forms of paranoia; extreme agitation; auditory and visual hallucinations; and strange beliefs.
Treatment for Amphetamine Induced Psychosis
People who are misusing amphetamines might show extreme sings of psychosis. They need specialised dual-diagnosis treatment. Due to the complexity of a dual-diagnosis condition, a residential rehabilitation programme is recommended for lasting recovery.
Castle Craig offers comprehensive care for dual-diagnosis patients in our Extended Care Unit. Read more about amphteamine psychosis and addiction here.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | October 12, 2019