Stimulants: What They Are, Their Side Effects and How They’re Used

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What Are Stimulants?

Stimulants are a class of psychoactive substances that increase the brain’s activity and speed up certain functions of the central nervous system. When someone uses a stimulant substance, it can cause euphoria, an increase in energy and wakefulness.

Stimulants can be legal everyday substances, prescription drugs and also illicit drugs sold on the streets.

One example of a legal, everyday substance with stimulant properties is caffeine. People might not necessarily think about caffeine as a drug, but it does have psychoactive properties and can increase mental alertness and energy levels.

Nicotine is also considered a stimulant, and a highly addictive one at that.

Some of the prescription stimulants that are most commonly used but also recreationally abused include:

  • Dextroamphetamine
  • Combinations of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Cocaine is an example of an illegal stimulant. Another example of a stimulant drug that’s illegal and also has severe side effects is crystal meth, often made with household chemicals and solvents.

When someone uses psychoactive stimulant substances, it not only speeds up functions controlled by the central nervous system. These drugs can also cause an increase of dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is often described as a feel-good neurotransmitter. The release of dopamine is one reason stimulants are addictive.

What Are the Effects of Stimulants?

Some of the short-term effects of stimulants can include:

  • Euphoria
  • Alertness
  • Higher arousal levels
  • Changes in behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Increased energy
  • Wakefulness
  • Loss of appetite

Long-term effects of stimulants, particularly when they’re recreationally abused, can include:

  • Tremors
  • Changes in heartbeat and heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Organ damage
  • An increased risk of cardiac events like heart attacks
  • Brain damage
  • Sudden death

Most Commonly Abused Stimulants

Some of the most commonly abused stimulants and their effects include:


Nicotine is what’s found in cigarettes, and it’s one reason smoking is so addictive. Nicotine is also one of the top three most widely used psychoactive substances in the world. Despite the prevalent use of nicotine products, the use of tobacco products is a leading preventable cause of death, disability, and disease in the U.S.


Cocaine is a drug that’s illegal and it’s frequently abused as a way to gain energy, euphoria and in many cases to stay up for long periods of time and party. Cocaine has a relatively long history in the United States, and it wasn’t always banned. However, now it’s a restricted substance and is the most frequently used illegal drug in the U.S.

When someone uses cocaine whether by snorting it, injecting it, inhaling it, or taking it orally, it can cross the blood-brain barrier quickly and in a powerful way. The person may feel a rapid and powerful high, but tends to be short-lived.


Methamphetamine is also called meth. Meth is very addictive and very deadly. It creates a very strong high but also quickly leads to changes in behavior including the potential for aggression and violence. The use of meth can destroy the brain and organs, and many people become addicted after using it only ones.

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants are often used for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When they’re used by someone who truly has ADHD, they can create a sense of calm and focus. When they’re recreationally abused, they can cause euphoria, feelings of well-being and self-confidence, and a rush of energy.

Prescription stimulants are often abused by college students and young adults as a way to help them stay awake and study for long periods. Along with being so-called performance enhancers, prescription stimulants also suppress the appetite so some people may use them recreationally as a way to lose weight.

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