ADHD Substance Abuse

Teen Amphetamine Abuse Risks and Ripple Effects

Drug addiction distinguishes itself from behavioral addiction by how addictive substances affect the brain, both in the short- and long-term. Among many recreational substances, amphetamines are some of the most dangerous and addictive, especially for teens and young adults. While certain rewarding behavior can engender repetition, even in the face of dire consequences, drugs are hazardous to most people because they neurologically change how the brain interprets them with every use.

Research shows that certain substances develop sensitivity in the brain, wherein receptors react more strongly to a drug the first few times. This dependence is deepened by other physical, neurological, and psychological symptoms of addiction, creating a vicious cycle. While amphetamine abuse is treatable, the prognosis for addiction largely depends on a long list of internal and external factors. For amphetamines, breaking the habit does not mean this sensitivity is reversible.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), research has shown that even the infrequent use of amphetamines can have serious, if not lifelong or life-threatening, consequences for teens – even after years of abstinence. Here’s what you need to know about the risks of early-onset use and the rippling effects of teen amphetamine abuse.

What Are Amphetamines?

Amphetamines are a type of synthetic stimulant drug with a long history of medical use, first as a nasal decongestant and aphrodisiac, and later as a prescription drug for:

    • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    • Obesity
    • Narcolepsy
    • Off-label uses for both depression and pain
    • Performance-enhancing uses in both sports and combat duty

A controlled substance since 1970, amphetamines can be very addictive and are typically more dangerous for teens without ADHD or narcolepsy than teens because of the neurological mechanisms behind these illnesses. Ironically, while a dangerous drug when used recreationally, prescribed amphetamine reduces the risk of substance use disorder (SUD) for teens with ADHD.

When used recreationally, however, the drug has a myriad of short-term and long-term effects, as well as adverse effects on the heart and brain. Notable dangerous side effects of amphetamine use include an increased risk of hypertension and tachycardia, anxiety, and insomnia. The most commonly abused name-brand amphetamines include:

Ritalin, which is also an ADHD drug, contains methylphenidate instead of amphetamine. Methylphenidate is also a highly addictive stimulant drug. Amphetamine produced and sold illegally is sometimes also known as “speed,” “uppers,” or “bennies.” Methamphetamine (meth) is a different stimulant drug based on the chemical structure of amphetamine. While it does have a brand prescription name, it is very rarely prescribed and is mainly produced and sold illegally as a dangerous recreational drug. MDMA (Ecstasy) is also amphetamine derived.

Signs & Symptoms of Teen Amphetamine Abuse

Amphetamines can produce a remarkable boost in energy and sociability and may affect both physical and cognitive performance. The amphetamines themselves do not give you any energy. Instead, they interact with receptors in the brain, releasing a powerful mixture of neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine and epinephrine. This can boost confidence and self-esteem to the point of grandeur, but it comes with a steep physical and psychological price, especially in the long-term or with repeated use. Some signs of teen amphetamine abuse include:

    • Irritability
    • Rapid mood swings
    • Hallucinations (rare)
    • Restlessness and insomnia
    • Frequent gastric problems
    • Delusions or paranoid behavior
    • Sudden weight loss and change in appetite

Amphetamine can be swallowed, injected, smoked, or snorted. There are no drug paraphernalia specifically associated with amphetamine, but missing pills or an unprescribed medication bottle may be common indicators.

Even Occasional Substance Use Has Consequences for Teens

Drug use during adolescence can dangerously lead to a higher risk of teen substance abuse. Studies have shown that unnecessary or recreational amphetamine use early on in life can increase the drug’s sensitivity later in adulthood. This means teens who abuse drugs like Adderall or other sources of amphetamine for recreational or academic purposes and then quit are more sensitive to the drug when they are older and have a higher risk of developing an addiction if they reencounter it.

Part of the reason these drugs are dangerous to teens is because of how they imprint themselves on the brain and because of adolescent neurology. Teen brains are still in development long after the rest of the body has finished maturing. The human brain is generally still “growing” until about 25, which is why teens have a harder time with long-term planning and risk assessment. This makes them more vulnerable to repeated drug use despite warnings and adverse effects, and it makes them more likely to ignore others’ experiences or fail to recognize the risk.

This is because, as research has shown, teens are much more likely to rely on the reward-based portion of their forebrain than the underdeveloped amygdala-cortex, which focuses on assessing risk when making decisions and thinking. It also means that drug use experiences become enmeshed in the brain at an earlier age, causing a much higher likelihood of addiction than if a person had encountered the same drug years later, late into their twenties.

Long-Term Effects of Amphetamines

Some of the long-term effects of teen amphetamine abuse include (but is not limited to):

    • Psychosis
    • Convulsions
    • Severe anxiety
    • Heart palpitations
    • Erectile dysfunction
    • Increased risk of stroke
    • Changes in blood pressure
    • Hypertension or hypotension
    • Worsened respiratory issues (in people with pre-existing respiratory illnesses)

Adverse effects, neurotoxicity, and the risk of dependence are all varied from person to person, and both genetic and external factors play a role in this. Polydrug use or using amphetamine produced illegally can further complicate long-term effects, as these street-level products are often mixed with other drugs.

Tackling Teen Amphetamine Abuse

There is no pharmacological solution for treating the abuse of amphetamines. Still, psychotherapy-based treatments have proven effective in helping teens recover from amphetamine addiction through a long-term recovery plan, often with the help of friends and relatives in the form of a strong support system. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs can offer different perspectives and an array of effective coping mechanisms to teens with a history of substance use disorder.

Prescription Drugs Substance Abuse

Teen Amphetamine Abuse Risk Factors and Early Warning Signs

According to statistics, up to eight percent of teens were abusing amphetamines by the end of high school in 2012. The number of reported instances by high school students had decreased by half as of 2019, but teen amphetamine abuse for those in middle school had nearly doubled. This means that young teens are more at risk than ever of abusing prescription medication.

What Are Amphetamines?

Amphetamines are a class of substance which produce stimulation to the central nervous system. They are medically prescribed to treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).

In the absence of these disabilities, amphetamines produce a burst intense energy and focus for the user. A person under the influence of amphetamines may experience the ability to complete tasks more easily, or may be able to obsess for hours on a task without interruption.

The increase in mental focus comes at a cost. When amphetamines are not used in the precise way prescribed by a doctor, both physical and mental health problems can occur. Amphetamines are highly addictive, and can cause side effects such as restlessness, heart palpitations, seizures, agitation, and even psychosis.

Risk Factors for Teen Amphetamine Abuse

Teens with family members who are prescribed amphetamines for medical conditions – or who are already prescribed them, personally – are a primary source of supply for illegal distribution of prescription medication. Several campaigns have been launched over the years, warning parents of the trend of stealing pills from medicine cabinets. While easy access to medications are an obvious red flag, there are other factors which can be observed as contributing to a risk that a teen will be tempted to abuse prescription amphetamines.

Having Friends Who Use

It is a fact of developmental psychology that teens are influenced by their peers. The adolescent stage of life is all about teenagers learning how to separate from their parents in a way that supports eventual adulthood. As part of this process of development of adult identity, selected friends can begin to replace the role of the nuclear family when it comes to establishment of norms and behaviors. If the norms of a teen’s peer group includes amphetamine abuse, the temptation to join in will be high.

Purchasing of Other Drugs

There has been much debate about whether using other, less addictive, drugs provides increased risk of using the more dangerous drugs. While the verdict on so-called “gateway” drugs is still in dispute, what is more concrete is the fact that drug dealers often sell more than just one substance. The potential for exposure to drugs like amphetamines while scoring that next bag of weed or hit of ecstasy is likely, and increased exposure can result in a deterioration of willpower to resist giving amphetamines a try.

Lack of Parental Involvement

As with many other behavioral problems, a teen who is not monitored by parental figures is more likely to get into trouble. Studies examining the perceptions of parents when it comes to their teen’s behavior show that many parents are largely unaware of the activities that their adolescents are engaging in. Failing to educate teens on the responsible use of medications and not keeping track of the supply can be viewed as passive permission from a parent for the teen to pursue the behavior.

Mood Disorders

Years of data has consistently linked the tendency for substance abuse to the presence of other, diagnosable, mental disorders. Up to 75% of adolescents who abuse substances are simultaneously suffering from symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and trauma. For many, the drugs are viewed as a way to escape from the negative thoughts and emotions associated with such disorders. The dulling of emotions and distraction from introspection that amphetamines produce make this type of drug particularly attractive.

Lack of Future Goals

We have all heard something like, “the idle mind is the devil’s playground.” This antiquated phrase speaks to the tendency of human beings to get into trouble when we are not occupying our minds with worthwhile ideas, goals, and plans. A teen who is lacking in a clear direction for his or her future is at risk of not considering the consequences of using drugs for a short-lived escape.

Early Warning Signs of Teen Amphetamine Abuse

While the above areas can be viewed as precautions for the development of a substance abuse problem, the following are signs that teen substance abuse has already started. Parents are advised to follow up on any hunches regarding the possibility of their teen abusing substances, and not to wait until the problem gets out of control. These factors are just a handful of symptoms to be on alert for when identifying teen amphetamine abuse.

Odd Sleeping Patterns

Amphetamines are a stimulant, meaning that they trick the mind into thinking it does not need as much sleep. Depending on the dosages, a teen who is using amphetamines may be observed as staying up all night, and then being inexplicably during the daytime. He or she may also be observed as going multiple days in a row without conforming to a standard bedtime.

Weight Loss

Along with the need for sleep being decreased, stimulants such as amphetamines also trick the body into feeling a lack of hunger. This effect of amphetamines is so well known, that it was previously promoted as a diet drug. A teen misusing this medication may be observed as regularly skipping out on family meals, and may begin to show obvious signs of dropping weight.


A red flag which is common to all substance abuse behaviors in teens is that of lying. Lying is a reaction to the desire to avoid getting into trouble or to ensure that a disapproved behavior can continue without interference. A teen who is abusing substances will feel an urge to lie about being on the drugs, lie about what he or she is doing with her time, and lie about the people he or she is hanging out with.

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