Skip to content

What Do Stimulants Do? Prescription Stimulants, Use, Misuse, Effects on the Brain and Body, Overdose & Treatment

There are both legal and illicit stimulants, and both categories are commonly abused. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the piece ‘Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts’, the most commonly abused prescription stimulants are medicines generally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy (uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep). They increase alertness, attention, and energy. The most common prescription stimulants are Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®), Dextroamphetamine/Amphetamine combination product (Adderall®), and Methylphenidate (Ritalin®, Concerta®). Some of the most commonly abused illicit stimulants include cocaine and methamphetamine. These kinds of drugs may be taken orally, snorted, or injected.

Sometimes referred to as “uppers,” these drugs are frequently abused due to their performance-enhancing and euphoric effects. Generally, those who abuse stimulants experience heightened energy levels and enhanced focus. Stimulants speed up mental and physical processes, which can produce desirable effects in the short term by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. While users may feel great due to the short-term effects of stimulants, long-term abuse of these drugs can have significant consequences, which is why it is so important for those who abuse the drugs to get help as quickly as possible.

What do stimulants do?
What do stimulants do? The most commonly abused prescription stimulants are medicines generally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

What Do Stimulants Do? What are prescription stimulants?

Prescription stimulants are medicines generally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy—uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep. They increase alertness, attention, and energy.

What Do Stimulants Do? Common prescription stimulants

  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®)
  • Dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination product (Adderall®)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin®, Concerta®).

What Do Stimulants Do? Use and Misuse

Most prescription stimulants come in tablet, capsule, or liquid form, which a person takes by mouth. Misuse of a prescription stimulant means:

  • Taking medicine in a way or dose other than prescribed
  • Taking someone else’s medicine
  • Taking medicine only for the effect it causes—to get high

When misusing a prescription stimulant, people can swallow the medicine in its normal form. Alternatively, they can crush tablets or open the capsules, dissolve the powder in water, and inject the liquid into a vein. Some can also snort or smoke the powder.

What Do Stimulants Do? Do Prescription Stimulants Make You Smarter?

Some people take prescription stimulants to try to improve mental performance. Teens and college students sometimes misuse them to try to get better grades, and older adults misuse them to try to improve their memory. Taking prescription stimulants for reasons other than treating ADHD or narcolepsy could lead to harmful health effects, such as addiction, heart problems, or psychosis.

What Do Stimulants Do? Effects on the brain and body

Prescription stimulants increase the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is involved in the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. Norepinephrine affects blood vessels, blood pressure and heart rate, blood sugar, and breathing.

What Do Stimulants Do? Short-Term Effects

People who use prescription stimulants report feeling a “rush” (euphoria) along with the following:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased breathing
  • Decreased blood flow
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Opened-up breathing passages

At high doses, prescription stimulants can lead to a dangerously high body temperature, an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and seizures.

What Do Stimulants Do? Other health effects of prescription stimulants

Repeated misuse of prescription stimulants, even within a short period, can cause psychosis, anger, or paranoia. If the drug is injected, it is important to note that sharing drug injection equipment and having impaired judgment from drug misuse can increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

What Do Stimulants Do? Prescription Stimulants Overdose

A person can overdose on prescription stimulants. An overdose occurs when the person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. When people overdose on a prescription stimulant, they most commonly experience several different symptoms, including restlessness, tremors, overactive reflexes, rapid breathing, confusion, aggression, hallucinations, panic states, abnormally increased fever, muscle pains, and weakness.

They also may have heart problems, including an irregular heartbeat leading to a heart attack, nerve problems that can lead to a seizure, abnormally high or low blood pressure, and circulation failure. Stomach issues may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In addition, an overdose can result in convulsions, coma, and fatal poisoning.

What Do Stimulants Do?
What Do Stimulants Do? A person can overdose on prescription stimulants. An overdose occurs when the person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death.

What Do Stimulants Do? Intentional vs. Unintentional Overdose Deaths

When a person dies because of a drug overdose, the medical examiner or coroner records on the death certificate whether the overdose was intentional (purposely self-inflicted, as in cases of suicide) or unintentional (accidental). Unintentional drug poisoning deaths include cases where:

  • The wrong drug was given or taken in error
  • An accident occurred in the use of a drug(s) in medical and surgical procedures  
  • A drug was taken accidentally
  • Too much of a drug was taken accidentally

When overall drug overdoses are reported, intentional and unintentional overdoses are counted, along with drug poisonings inflicted by another person with the intent to injure or kill, and overdoses in which the intent to harm cannot be determined.

The World Health Organization defines the codes for these categories as “the disease or injury which initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence which produced the fatal injury.” For drug overdose, the international classification of diseases (ICD-10) codes for these categories are:

  • X40-X44: accidental poisoning by and exposure to drug
  • X60-X64:  intentional self-harm
  • X85: assault
  • Y11-Y14: event of undetermined intent

What Do Stimulants Do? Prescription stimulants overdose treatment

Because prescription stimulant overdose often leads to a heart attack or seizure, the most important step to take is to call 911 so a person who has overdosed can receive immediate medical attention. First responders and emergency room doctors try to treat the overdose with the intent of restoring blood flow to the heart and stopping the seizure with care or with medications if necessary.

Can prescription stimulant use lead to substance use disorder and addiction?

Yes, misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD), which takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Long-term use of stimulants, even as prescribed by a doctor, can cause a person to develop a tolerance, which means that he or she needs higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects.

An SUD develops when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. Concerns about use should be discussed with a health care provider. If a person develops an SUD and stops use of the prescription stimulant, he or she can experience withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

What Do Stimulants Do?
What Do Stimulants Do? Misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Sleep problems

What Do Stimulants Do? Treatment for Stimulant Addiction

Continued abuse of any type of stimulant can lead to a Stimulant Drug Addiction. Once addiction has taken hold, professional care is recommended for the best chance at a complete recovery.

Generally, medical detox is recommended for those suffering from long-term stimulant abuse, polysubstance abuse, or co-occurring disorders (when another mental health disorder occurs alongside the addiction). In a professional facility, clients are monitored around the clock while the drugs of abuse are processed out of the body. If any complications arise, medical professionals can act quickly.

In addition, medications may be administered to address specific withdrawal symptoms, such as anti-anxiety or anti-nausea medications, to make the process as comfortable as possible. Supportive care in the form of proper nutrition, hydration, and encouragement is also given.

While medical detox is an essential first step in addiction recovery, it does not constitute treatment on its own. It must be followed with comprehensive therapy. Behavioral treatment. 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): has seen extensive success in treating cocaine addiction in particular. This short-term treatment approach involves identifying thought patterns that lead to substance abuse and then working to change those thoughts. As a result, behaviors also change. Clients then learn to opt for positive coping mechanisms when triggers to use cocaine or other stimulants arise.
  • Contingency Management: a form of therapy that involves rewards, has been shown to be effective in treating stimulant addiction. Clients are given rewards, like vouchers for activities or prizes, for achieving certain milestones, such as a certain number of days sober or attending a specific number of therapy sessions.
  • The Matrix Model: is also commonly used to address Stimulant Drug Addiction. In this model, the client and therapist work closely to encourage positive behavior changes and boost the client’s feelings of self-worth. As treatment progresses, clients gain more self-confidence and ultimately realize that they are best able to help themselves once they have the right tools in place.
What Do Stimulants Do?
What Do Stimulants Do? Continued abuse of any type of stimulant can lead to a Stimulant Drug Addiction. Once addiction has taken hold, professional care is recommended for the best chance at a complete recovery.

As with all forms of addiction treatment, care should be customized to fit the individual needs of the client. There is no cookie-cutter approach to recovery that will work for everyone, so those struggling with stimulant abuse should take care to find a treatment program that will address their specific need.

Reclaim your life from Stimulant Drug Addiction

Prescription Stimulant Addiction is a serious condition that can cause major health, social, and economic problems that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up California can provide to you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from addiction with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors, we can inform you about issues such as ‘What do stimulants do?’. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential. 


[1] NIDA. 2018. Prescription Stimulants DrugFacts.

[2] NIDA. Intentional vs. Unintentional Overdose Deaths.

[3] U.S. National Library of Medicine –

[4] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) –