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Stimulants and Alcohol

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Doctors prescribe stimulants to treat a variety of conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, misuse and addiction are common concerns for this medication.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 5 million Americans misuse prescription stimulants and almost half a million people in the U.S. have a stimulant use disorder.4

Combining Stimulants and Alcohol

It is not uncommon for someone abusing drugs to abuse another substance at the same time. This is true with stimulants and alcohol.

The co-occurrence of stimulant use and alcohol abuse is common. Several studies show that there is a strong connection between ADHD, drug abuse, and alcohol use disorder.1 

ADHD is 5 to 10 times more common in adult alcoholics, while children with ADHD are more likely to abuse alcohol during their teenage years.1

What are Stimulants?

Stimulants are also called “uppers.” They increase the heart rate and brain function to increase focus and energy.

Doctors prescribe stimulants to treat conditions such as ADHD and narcolepsy. They can also aid in weight loss.

Unfortunately, they can be highly addictive. People can become physically and psychologically dependent.

Common stimulants include:

  • Amphetamines – Adderall and Dexedrine
  • Methylphenidates – Concerta and Ritalin
  • Diet Aids – Didrex, Bontril, Preludin, and Meridia
  • Illegal Stimulants – methamphetamine, cocaine, and methcathinone

Prescription stimulants come in tablets, capsules, or liquid forms taken by mouth. Illicit stimulants are taken through smoking, snorting, dissolving, or injecting.

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The Side Effects of Stimulants

Stimulants speed up how the body functions. They also increase dopamine and norepinephrine's brain activity. 

Dopamine affects the reinforcement of rewarding behaviors. Norepinephrine affects the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.

These effects can be beneficial when people use stimulants as prescribed. However, these drugs can cause unpleasant side effects, which include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Heart palpitations

The body and brain can develop a tolerance to stimulants. Because of this, a higher dose might be necessary over time. This tolerance leads to misuse and abuse.

Symptoms of misuse and abuse can include the above as well as:

  • Increased levels of euphoria
  • High levels of self-confidence
  • Increased sociability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Reduced appetite
  • Extremely rapid heart rate
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Seizures
  • Structural brain changes
  • Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia
  • Suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues

Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down how the brain processes certain functions.

When you drink, you may experience a relaxed and euphoric mood. It's commonly followed by adverse effects including:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired judgment
  • Disturbances in vision and hearing
  • Loss of coordination and reduced perception
  • Loss of consciousness

Moderate drinking is considered relatively safe. This amounts to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

If a person binge drinks regularly, alcohol abuse can occur. If so, a person could be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder.

Signs of alcohol use disorder can include:

  • Inability to control or reduce alcohol consumption
  • Spending most of the day drinking alcohol, thinking about drinking, or recovering from drinking
  • Alcohol tolerance and the need to drink more
  • Loss of interest in regular and favorite activities
  • Missing time from work, school, or social events
  • Drinking despite it causing physical, emotional, or social harm
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not in your system
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Dangers of Combining Stimulants and Alcohol

Alcohol and stimulants can cancel out or enhance each other's effects. It depends on the kind of stimulants used. However, combining them can be dangerous and even life-threatening.

Alcohol interacting with amphetamines increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. The amphetamines mask the effects of intoxication, enabling a person to consume more alcohol.

People using cocaine, methamphetamine, or Ritalin with alcohol experience a reduction of the stimulant's effects. This increases their risk of taking more and overdosing.

Other possible complications include:

  • Severely reduced cognitive ability
  • Severe changes in mood and behavior
  • Problems with motor function
  • Increased risk of seizures, high blood pressure, or a heart attack
  • Increased risk of liver or kidney disease
  • Increased tolerance to both alcohol and stimulants
  • Reduced immune system function
  • Long-term neurological conditions
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts or suicide

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Treating Stimulants and Alcohol Abuse

Treating stimulant and alcohol abuse requires a medically assisted treatment plan. This allows medical professionals to monitor and treat potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment is done at an inpatient or residential rehab facility. It begins with detox and may include specific medications, therapy, and aftercare.

Updated on May 17, 2022
6 sources cited
  1. Egan, Kathleen L, et al. “Simultaneous Use of Non-Medical ADHD Prescription Stimulants and Alcohol among Undergraduate Students.Drug and Alcohol Dependence, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 July 2013
  2. Kaloyanides, Kristy B, et al. “Prevalence of Illicit Use and Abuse of Prescription Stimulants, Alcohol, and Other Drugs among College Students: Relationship with Age at Initiation of Prescription Stimulants.Pharmacotherapy, U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2007
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs.NIDA.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Five Million American Adults Misusing Prescription Stimulants.NIDA, 16 Apr. 2018
  5. Stimulants.DEA
  6. Your Brain on Stimulants, Part 1: How Stimulants Work.NIDA for Teens

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