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Why Is Adderall Addictive? 4 Questions, Answered

By Will Solomon, Kyle Kirkland
Adderall can be used effectively, but it can also lead to addiction. Here is what the experts say about why Adderall can be addictive and the dangers of abusing it.

Adderall, a stimulant, is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that is commonly used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While many patients can use Adderall successfully, the medication does come with the potential for abuse and addiction. And since Adderall abuse can begin with or without a prescription, understanding both circumstances of the drug’s use, and the rates of prevalence of its use (and misuse) are essential. Read on for the answers to four key questions about Adderall and addiction. 

1. Why is Adderall Addictive?

“Adderall is addictive largely because of its stimulant qualities,” Jenna Liphart Rhoads, PhD and nurse educator, tells WebMD Connect to Care. People often take Adderall for help with focus and academic performance. It is also used to elevate mood and decrease appetite.

“The medication works by increasing dopamine—a ‘feel-good’ hormone—and norepinephrine levels in the central nervous system—the brain,” Rhoads says. People can get used to these high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine over time and feel dependent on the drug.

“With increasing pressures to perform and availability of stimulant medications,” Lauren Madden, licensed clinical professional counselor and clinical supervisor of the Gateway Foundation, tells WebMD Connect to Care, “Adderall provides an opportunity for substance abuse due to its popularity and perceived minimal risk among those with—or without—a formal diagnosis.” In other words, Adderall is typically reasonably easy to access, may be prevalent within certain populations (for instance, among college students), and may be perceived to carry only mild risk.

 

Adderall abuse stems directly from its addictiveness. The “feel-good” response of the drug can lead to perceived short-term benefits—such as better academic performance, or improved focus at work—even though these sensations, and effects, wear off over time. As tolerance to the drug grows, many Adderall users will feel the need to take more and more of the drug to achieve similar effects.

Signs of Adderall abuse can include: 

  • Taking more than the recommended or prescribed dose of Adderall
  • Mixing the drug with other substances, like alcohol
  • Injecting or snorting the drug
  • Feeling unable to meet deadlines or complete work without taking the drug
  • Persistently spending time and energy seeking out the drug
  • Withdrawing from professional, academic, or social obligations
  • Unusual mood swings, including strong feelings of aggression, mania, restlessness, or excessive tiredness

Certain groups are statistically more prone to Adderall abuse. “Adderall is usually abused by young adults, frequently college students, trying to study through the night,” Dmitry B. Aniskin, MD and Director of the Methadone Treatment Program at Staten Island University Hospital, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “It can also be misused in an attempt to lose weight or to improve athletic performance.” Despite prevalence in certain groups, anyone can potentially abuse Adderall, for a variety of reasons.

2. Is Adderall addivtive if you're using it for ADHD?

As a general rule, Adderall can be addictive whether or not you are using it to treat ADHD. However, if Adderall is being prescribed by a doctor for ADHD, its use will be monitored and moderated over time, helping to prevent addiction, and allowing for adjustment as needed. In fact, use of Adderall in a prescribed setting can actually lessen the risk of addiction to Adderall or other stimulants. “If Adderall is taken as prescribed in context of ADHD, it rarely, if ever, leads to addiction,” Aniskin says. “On the contrary, taking stimulants for treatment of ADHD prevents the future development of addiction to various substances.”

Doctors agree that Adderall taken without a doctor’s supervision can be more easily abused. However, it is important to note that Adderall may still be addictive or abused, even if its use begins with a doctor’s prescription.

“Adderall is not necessarily addictive if it is being prescribed for ADHD as long as the person takes the medication in the way that it was prescribed by their physician,” Michael J. McGrath, MD and Medical Director of the Ohana Luxury Alcohol Rehab, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “However, a person who is prescribed Adderall can become addicted if they don't take the medication as prescribed.”

In short, Adderall abuse is less likely to develop if it is being clinically prescribed for ADHD; however, a prescription that is not reliably followed can potentially lead to abuse.

3. How many people are addicted to Adderall? 

Clear statistics for the prevalence of Adderall addiction are difficult to definitively come by. A 2018 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that about 5 million people aged 12 and over, or about 2% of the population of the United States, misused prescription stimulants during the previous year. (This category includes Adderall, as well as other stimulants.) 

However, the rate of Adderall and other stimulant use clearly appears to vary across distinct demographic groups. “According to one study, about 10% of adolescents and young adults who misused prescription stimulants (which include Adderall) became addicted to them,” Aniskin says. Young adults are particularly common Adderall users. A 2015 study in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review estimated that 17% of college students misused stimulant medications, including Adderall. “Adderall addiction is more prevalent among younger people,” McGrath says.

Adderall abuse in the population may also be increasing. “According to recent studies, non-medical use of Adderall, which would be considered Adderall misuse, resulted in an increase of more than 155% in emergency room visits between 2006-2011,” McGrath says.

4. How is Adderall addiction treated?

As with other drug addictions, treatment for Adderall addiction is most effectively undertaken in a professional setting. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, treatment for drug abuse generally includes detoxification, counseling, potentially medication, and reliable follow-up. Of course, the specific plan for treatment will vary from individual to individual, depending upon his or her particular circumstances and degree of addiction.  “Adderall is a stimulant, so addiction is treated like any other stimulant,” McGrath says. “Treatment consists of psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, support groups, and even in some cases residential treatment. The exact treatment varies depending on how long the person has been using the drug, as well as how often they use and other factors.”

Adderall abuse, whether by yourself or by a friend, family member, or other loved one, can be concerning, and may feel extremely challenging to safely address. But with appropriate intervention, and reliable support, Adderall addiction at all stages can be consistently treated.

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