Amphetamines are a diverse group of drugs that are characterized by their ability to act as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants. The amphetamine family includes illicit drugs like methamphetamine, which is powerfully addictive and can be very challenging to quit, as well as common prescription drugs that have been shown to improve focus and attention in people who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While prescription amphetamines have a somewhat lower risk for addiction than methamphetamine, they are still associated with a very real risk for abuse, dependence, and addiction.
Importantly, amphetamine side effects are somewhat dependent on the specific type of amphetamine that is consumed. Methamphetamine is associated with side effects that are profound and can substantially disrupt daily function, while prescription amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin are more associated with increased ability to focus without interrupting normal daily routines when they are taken as prescribed. However, chronic abuse of prescription amphetamines can lead to adverse health and social consequences.
Different types of amphetamine are associated with different levels of risk for abuse, dependence and addiction but they all affect the dopamine neurotransmitter signaling pathway in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reward and motivation, and when drugs of abuse artificially increase dopamine levels the brain interprets them as positive and rewarding substances that should be sought out.
Methamphetamine is associated with severe risk for abuse and addiction because it rapidly causes large amounts of dopamine to flood the brain, leading to euphoria and high energy levels. Once the methamphetamine has worn off, however, withdrawal symptoms set in that include depression and lack of ability to experience pleasure. Prescription amphetamines also increase dopamine levels but at far lower levels than methamphetamine. This means that they are associated with less risk for abuse and addiction, but the risk is far from zero.
Amphetamine Abuse Symptoms and Signs
Although different amphetamines are associated with different risks for abuse, dependence and addiction and can have somewhat unique side effects, they share substantially overlapping signs, symptoms and side effects when they are abused. Because all amphetamines are central nervous system stimulants, they all increase energy levels, motivation and drive.
Amphetamine abuse can be differentiated from use and misuse by the intent of the person who is taking the drug. People who abuse amphetamines do so explicitly to experience the euphoric high associated with taking large amounts of an amphetamine or by combining amphetamines with other drugs. In contrast, misuse is characterized by taking larger amounts than prescribed or taking a prescribed dose more frequently than directed in order to achieve the same effect that was initially experienced. Misuse is more commonly associated with the development of tolerance and dependence, which can occur rapidly with regular amphetamine use, even when they are taken as prescribed. Amphetamine abuse is also associated with tolerance and dependence, but is more likely to lead to addiction than misuse is, especially in the context of prescribed amphetamines.
Symptoms of amphetamine abuse are subjective experiences that cannot be observed or measured, whereas signs of amphetamine abuse are objective and measurable effects that can be observed by outsiders. Amphetamine abuse is frequently associated with both physical and psychological symptoms and signs.
One cardinal sign of amphetamine abuse is the presence of paraphernalia for snorting or smoking amphetamines. Snorting paraphernalia may include straws, pen casings or rolled-up dollar bills and mirrors with powdery residue on them. Smoking paraphernalia may include tin foil, soda cans or light bulbs with yellowish residue, glass pipes and butane lighters or torches.
Physical Symptoms and Signs
Physical symptoms of amphetamine abuse are experienced by someone who uses amphetamines and often include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Increased respiration rate
- Increased body temperature
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness or vertigo
Physical signs of amphetamine abuse can be observed by friends and family, and may include:
- Higher than normal energy levels
- Loss of appetite/anorexia
- Weight loss
- Flushed skin
- Excessive sweating
- Clenched jaw or grinding teeth
- Repetitive motions like toe tapping
- Reduced attention to personal hygiene
- Acne or other skin problems
- Burned fingers or lips from smoking amphetamines
Psychological Symptoms and Signs
Psychological symptoms that may indicate amphetamine abuse often include:
- Increased motivation or drive
- Increased confidence and sociability
- Altered libido
Psychological signs of amphetamine abuse are characterized by:
- Hyperconcentration or sustained focus
- More talkative than normal
- Rapid mood swings
- Erratic behavior
- Secrecy or evasiveness
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Inability to maintain relationships
When someone who has developed a dependence or addiction to an amphetamine reduces or completely eliminates the dose, they will experience a period of withdrawal while their brain readjusts to functioning in the absence of the amphetamine it has become dependent on.
Common amphetamine withdrawal signs and symptoms include:
- Lack of ability to concentrate
- Rapid mood swings
- Anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure)
- Dysphoria (a general sense of unease or dissatisfaction)
- Reduced motor activity
- Altered sleep patterns (often increased sleep)
- Vivid dreams or nightmares
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Side Effects of Amphetamine Abuse
In contrast to signs and symptoms, which are expected consequences of amphetamine use, misuse or abuse, side effects are secondary effects that are generally unwanted and, in some cases, can have very negative health ramifications.
Side effects that may be associated with even short term amphetamine abuse include:
- Decreased cognitive function
- Neurotoxicity (death of brain cells)
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Altered mental status
- Hostility and aggression
- Suicidal behaviors
In addition, adverse social consequences can be a side effect of amphetamine abuse. Social ramifications associated with amphetamine abuse may include:
- Abnormal irresponsibility
- Skipping work or school
- Financial troubles
- Evasive behavior
Amphetamine Side Effects of Long Term Use
Chronic amphetamine abuse has been linked to serious medical complications that can significantly affect the quality of life as well as increased morbidity and mortality risks. Side effects associated with long term amphetamine abuse may include:
- Vitamin deficiency
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Cardiomyopathy (heart disease)
- Kidney disease or failure
- Liver disease or failure
- Neurodegeneration (reduced brain tissue volume and structural integrity)
- Behavioral disorders
Signs & Symptoms of Amphetamine Overdose
Amphetamine overdoses are dangerous and can be lethal. Methamphetamine has the highest risk for overdose, although recreational abuse of other amphetamines can also result in amphetamine toxicity and potentially lethal overdoses. Amphetamine-related deaths have been steadily increasing over the past decade, underscoring the dangers of amphetamine abuse. One nationwide study found that amphetamine-related deaths increased by more than 250% between 2008 and 2015 and, although methamphetamine was the most lethal amphetamine, prescription amphetamines have also been increasingly linked to emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths that are caused by overdoses.
Overdose risk is substantially increased when amphetamines are used with other drugs or alcohol. There have been instances where people have inadvertently combined alcohol or other legal stimulants (e.g. coffee, over the counter medications) with prescribed amphetamines that they took according to their prescription and have experienced overdose symptoms. Abusing amphetamines with other drugs is extremely risky, and the majority of amphetamine-related overdose deaths involve another drug or alcohol.
Common signs and symptoms that can help to identify an amphetamine overdoseinclude:
- Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature)
- Chest pain
- Abdominal pain
- Panic attacks
- Irregular breathing
- Slurred speech
- Rapid heartbeat
- Erratic behavior
- Uncharacteristic aggression or hostility
- Detachment from reality
- Delirium or delusions
- Seizures or convulsions
An amphetamine overdose can be fatal. If you suspect an overdose, call 911 immediately.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an amphetamine use disorder, help is available. The experts at The Orlando Recovery Center understand the challenges associated with both illicit and prescription amphetamine dependence and addiction and are equipped to address both physical and psychological aspects of withdrawal and early recovery. In addition, we provide exceptional long term support and aftercare that promotes long term success in recovery. Call us today to learn more about our comprehensive rehab programs and how we can help you succeed.
Sitte, Harald H; Freissmuth, Michael. “Amphetamines, new psychoactive drugs and[…]ne transporter cycle.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, July 2015. Accessed November 10, 2019.
University of Colorado Boulder. “Neuroanatomy and Physiology of the “Br[…] in Substance Abuse.” The Institute for Behavioral Genetics. Accessed November 10, 2019.
Vasan, Sarayu; Olango, Garth J. “Amphetamine Toxicity.” NCBI StatPearls, Updated November 2018. Accessed November 11, 2019.
Fluyau, Dimy; et al. “Antipsychotics for Amphetamine Psychosis[…] A Systematic Review.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, October 2019. Accessed November 10, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2018 Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-[…]es — United States.” Surveillance Special Report: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 31, 2018. Accessed November 11, 2019.
Winkelman, Tyler NA.; et al. “Evaluation of Amphetamine-Related Hospit[…]in the United States.” JAMA Network Open, October 2018. Accessed November 11, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.