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Adderall vs. Methamphetamine: Why They're Similar, and Why They're Not

By Kevin Hwang, MD, MPH
Reviewed by Nicole Arzt, LMFT on December 12, 2020
Methamphetamine is a widely misused drug that has destroyed entire communities. Adderall, while it can be misused, can be helpful for some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.

Methamphetamine and Adderall are drugs that stimulate the brain. While they have some similarities, it’s important to understand the differences in their effects, risks, and potential for misuse.

What is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine, or meth, is a very addictive and powerful stimulant. While meth may be prescribed by a health care provider in very rare situations, meth is mostly misused as a recreational street drug.

People misuse meth by smoking, snorting, injecting, or swallowing the drug. Meth causes a “rush” of extremely good feelings. Because the rush comes and goes very quickly (within minutes), some people take more and more meth to maintain the high, and often turn to crime or neglect their basic responsibilities to maintain their habits.

Meth addiction causes devastating problems for users and whole communities. Meth use is associated with aggression, anxiety, depression, confusion, memory loss, paranoia, poor nutrition, dental problems, and damage to the heart. A meth overdose can quickly turn fatal. Communities affected by meth have high rates of crime, unemployment, and child neglect or abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

What is Adderall?

Adderall is the brand name for a prescription drug that contains both dextroamphetamine and amphetamine. Adderall is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that makes it hard to concentrate on tasks. The drug works as a stimulant, increasing attention, focus, alertness, and energy. That’s why it can help people with ADHD concentrate at school or work. 

Some people without ADHD use Adderall to try to get better grades at school or improve their performance at work. But searching for a mental boost is not the same as having ADHD. A careful evaluation by a qualified professional is needed to determine if you have ADHD.

“I diagnose children, adolescents and adults with ADHD after learning about their birth, developmental, family, and educational history,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, California. “I often speak with individuals’ family members and teachers to learn more about how they present in different settings such as home and school. I occasionally refer individuals for testing to learn about their memory and processing speed. I also observe how children and adults appear, speak and engage with me during our sessions, which helps me make a diagnosis of ADHD.”

Adderall is also approved for treating narcolepsy, a disorder that makes you suddenly fall asleep at any time. While it may not be the first choice now that other options are available, Adderall can help people with narcolepsy stay awake during the daytime.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, taking Adderall or other stimulants for reasons other than ADHD and narcolepsy can increase one's chances of developing an addiction. Potential side effects of Adderall include nervousness, headache, dry mouth, weight loss, dizziness, seizures, paranoia, and fast or irregular heartbeat.

Why Do People Think They’re Alike?

Methamphetamine and Adderall are both stimulant drugs. The word “methamphetamine” sounds very similar to “amphetamine,” one of the components of Adderall. In fact, methamphetamine is chemically related to amphetamine.

However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warns that methamphetamine is much more powerful than amphetamine because more of the drug gets into the brain. Methamphetamine has more harmful side effects and is more likely to be misused.

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