Many college students use prescription medications such as Adderall to gain an edge but it may be more harmful than helpful.
Adderall, or amphetamine-dextroamphetamine, is a prescription stimulant approved for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.
It works by increasing the chemicals in your brain — such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — that work to improve your attention while diminishing symptoms related to impulsivity and hyperactivity.
In addition to helping you focus, Adderall alters chemicals in the brain that reinforce rewarding behaviors.
These benefits have made Adderall a popular “study drug” among college students.
In the Monitoring the Future National Survey on Drug Use (1975-2020) report, approximately 7.6% of 19 to 30-year-olds reported nonmedical use of Adderall in 2020, with the highest rate of usage among 21 to 26-year-olds at 9%.
The number of experimentations with Adderall in college may be significantly higher, but a 2016 study found that as many as 51% of college seniors reported experimenting with Adderall as a study aid.
Here are some of the reasons college students report misusing Adderall.
For many students, the ability to focus when staying up late studying is the primary allure of stimulant misuse.
Making good studying better
Even when study habits and strategies are optimal, research from 2020 shows that college students may use stimulants such as Adderall as a way to augment already effective study methods.
Adderall may also improve your ability to feel comfortable talking in group settings, making it a go-to crutch for presentations and lectures.
Social side effects
The ability to be talkative and social can make some college students more relaxed at non-academic events and parties.
Adderall use may suppress appetite, which may result in weight loss — a side effect
Over time, you may start to notice long-term effects of Adderall misuse, such as:
- sleep disturbances
- muscle tremors
- skin disorders
- weight loss
- heart damage
- collapsed veins (related to injecting)
- nasal cavity deterioration (related to snorting)
Higher levels of stimulant misuse were also associated with increased impulsivity and long-term consequences similar to cocaine or opioid misuse.
Here are some facts about Adderall college use.
- Adderall misuse is more common among men than women.
- Women are more likely than men to misuse Adderall
for weight management.
- Nonmedical Adderall misuse is more common in the northeast (9.6%) and west (8.1%) parts of the United States and lowest in the south (6.4%).
- The rate of Adderall use in college has remained largely unchanged over the last 5 years.
If you’re concerned your child is misusing Adderall, common symptoms to watch out for may include:
- over-the-top sense of invincibility or well-being
- dry mouth
- trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- weight loss
Adderall is classified as a medication with a potential for addiction. Signs of substance use disorder can include:
- regular overconsumption
- spending excessive amounts of time researching and obtaining Adderall
- using in situations that may not be safe
- craving or having urges to use Adderall
- attempting to cut down or stop using Adderall but unable to
- continuing to use Adderall even though it may affect health, relationships, or other aspects of life negatively
- giving up previously enjoyed activities due to use
- neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school
- building up a tolerance
- spending a lot of time using or trying to use and recovering
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit
Adderall use in college use is prevalent, and while students may think they’ve found a “study drug” that makes them smarter, this isn’t the case.
Myth: Adderall makes you smarter.
Fact: While Adderall may make you feel more focused and can keep you alert during those long nights of studying, a 2018 study into the medication’s actual benefits found it actually did very little to improve neurocognitive performance in neurotypical college students.
This suggests that while you might be awake enough to study those extra hours, whether or not you learn and retain the information isn’t determined by the use of Adderall.
Myth: Adderall is safe because it’s a prescription.
Fact: Adderall is approved for use in ADHD and narcolepsy when given under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
As with all prescription medications, even when Adderall is used as prescribed, there’s potential for severe, long-term side effects and addiction.
Myth: Adderall use in college is as safe as using caffeine.
Fact: Adderall is a prescription medication, meaning it’s only deemed safe when managed by a healthcare or mental health professional. Caffeine, which primarily targets the brain chemical adenosine, works differently and is milder than Adderall.
So, these aren’t considered interchangeable.
Myth: Occasional Adderall use is fine
Fact: Taking Adderall once in a while can pose serious health effects, especially if taken socially alongside alcohol.
Mixing Adderall with alcohol can make both substances feel less potent even though they’re fully active in your system. This may make it more likely that you’ll overdose on both.
You may also experience unpredictable side effects specific to mixing substances such as seizures.
Even taking Adderall once, alone, can be dangerous. A healthcare or mental health professional is there to ensure the benefits outweigh the side effects.
Taking Adderall without medical guidance can complicate underlying conditions and may be life threatening.
If you’ve been misusing Adderall in college, there are ways to eliminate it from your routine.
Avoiding last-minute prep
Setting aside time days or weeks before an exam, for example, can help prevent the need for last-minute, desperate all-nighters.
Finding study groups
If you still need to be up late studying, being with others can help keep sleepiness at bay through conversation and peer review.
Using the tools available
If you don’t feel like you’re skilled at studying on your own, your university may offer mentoring, tutoring, or organized study aids that can provide guidance.
Getting quality sleep
Quality sleep can impact your ability to focus. Avoiding blue light before bed, using ear plugs, and keeping a comfortable temperature can all make a difference in sleep quality.
If Adderall college misuse has become a part of your regular routine or if you’re experiencing symptoms of addiction, speaking with a healthcare or mental health professional can help.
Treatment for substance use disorder may involve supervised medical care to counteract symptoms of withdrawal and ensure your safety.
Adderall use in college is common. Like other stimulants, Adderall is used as a “study drug,” a substance thought to help students focus and stay awake during late-night study sessions.
While Adderall can improve focus and attention, it doesn’t increase the ability to learn. It also comes with a host of potential side effects — including addiction — that may outweigh any benefits of alertness.
If you’re concerned about Adderall college use for yourself or someone you know, you can speak with a trained representative at any time by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357.