What is Adderall used for?

Adderall use is prescribed for specific medical conditions. Learn how, when and why doctors prescribe Adderall and why people use Adderall for non medical reasons. Plus, discuss what to do if you have possible signs of Adderall addiction. More on What is Adderall, its abuse and addiction potential here.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Adderall is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts that belongs to a class of drugs known as “stimulants”. Is used medically to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Paradoxically, it can help increase your ability to pay attention, stay focused on an activity, and control behavior problems. But is can also be misused. We examine correct use and misuse here, and outline the risks of each.


What Is Adderall?

Adderall is an FDA-approved, branded formulation of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It is a central nervous system stimulant made up of these two different chemicals that are psychoactive, meaning that they affect the brain. [1] How?

The chemicals that Adderall is composed of combine to change brain chemistry and help neurotransmitters send messages between nerve cells in the brain. This drug increases the activity of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine affects feelings of pleasure. Norepinephrine affects blood vessels, blood pressure and heart rate, blood sugar, and breathing.

As a prescription stimulant, Adderall can be used to effectively manage some conditions by helping users remain alert and focused. Is used treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.When prescribed by doctors for medical reasons, Adderall can be taken in 5, 7.5, 10, 12.5, 15, 20, and 30 mg doses; these is legal, however, giving Adderall to someone without a prescription is illegal in the United States.

Just how Adderall helps ADHD is not known. Amphetamines are thought to block the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine into the presynaptic neuron and increase the release of these monoamines into the extraneuronal space. This illustration from pharmaceutical maker, Alcobra, Ltd. Shows the main ways medicines are supposed to work for ADHD [2]:

Main Uses

Adderall has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. When prescribed for ADHD, Adderall helps control symptoms such as difficulty focusing, remaining or controlling actions. When prescribed for narcolepsy, Adderall helps treat excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden or deep attacks of sleep. [3]

Adderall can be prescribed for the medical treatment of:

  • ADD (attention deficit disorder).
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
  • Depression, which is resistant to other treatments.
  • Narcolepsy.
  • Some forms of obesity.

How many people use Adderall? According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2015, 17.2 million people aged 12 or older were past year users of stimulants, 11.3 million 4.2% of whom used amphetamine products. [4]

Non-Medical Use

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates about 50 million Americans aged 12 or older have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons in their lifetime. That figure represents approximately 20% of the United States’ population. [5] According to this 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University, increases in Adderall abuse by young people (ages 18 to 25) continue, despite a decrease in the total number of prescriptions nationwide. [6]

In the face of the potential health and legal consequences, misuse of prescription stimulants has become a serious problem in the United States and abroad, especially on college campuses. In fact, Adderall is used non-medically, especially among full-time college students. This article published in 2011 by the Journal of Addictive Diseases summarizes the problem this way [7]:

The nonmedical use of prescription stimulants is a complex behavior, and should be viewed in the larger context of alcohol and drug involvement among young adults…. This particular class of drugs appears to be sought out by students who might be struggling academically.

When taken without a prescription, Adderall can be also used to achieve feelings of euphoria, to focus, to stay awake or to lose weight.

People use Adderall non-medically to:

  • Help focus energy.
  • Improve me.
  • Increase alertness.
  • Increase concentration.
  • Increase libido.
  • Lose weight.
  • Stay awake.
  • Suppress appetite.

Any long-term use of stimulants, even as prescribed by a doctor, can cause a person to develop a tolerance, which means that needs higher or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects. Taking Adderall for non-medical reasons, however, increases potential for abuse, dependence, tolerance, and addiction, and can even lead to Adderall withdrawals.

For more reading on the facts about Adderall misuse, see this National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens webpage on stimulant RX Drugs. [8]

Safety Considerations

The best and the safest way to use Adderall is to take it exactly as directed by your doctor. The dosage is based on your medical condition and response to treatment. See the FDA approved Adderall medication guide for more guidelines on prescription use. [9]

NOTE HERE: Stimulants have caused stroke, heart attack, and sudden death in certain people. Tell your doctor if you have:

  • A family history of heart disease or sudden death.
  • Glaucoma.
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, coronary artery disease (hardened arteries).
  • Overactive thyroid.
  • Severe anxiety, tension, or agitation.

The safety of using prescription drugs, like Adderall, in combination with other substances depends on a number of factors including the types of medications, dosages, other substance use (e.g., alcohol), and individual health factors.

Furthermore, some medicines can interact with amphetamine and dextroamphetamine and cause a serious condition called serotonin syndrome. Be sure your doctor knows if you also take opioid medicine, herbal products, or medicine for depression, mental illness, Parkinson’s disease, migraine headaches, serious infections, or prevention of nausea and vomiting. Ask your doctor before making any changes in how or when you take your medications.

A Definition of Abuse

Substance abuse is:

Taking a drug in amounts and/or via methods that are harmful to self or others.

So, misuse of a prescription stimulant means taking medicine in a way or dose other than prescribed, taking medicine only for the effect it causes (to get high), or taking someone else’s medicine without a prescription.

When misusing a prescription stimulant, people can swallow the medicine in its normal form. Alternatively, they can crush tablets or open the capsules, dissolve the powder in water, and inject the liquid into a vein. Some can also snort or smoke the powder.


Adderall misuse can lead to an overdose; this occurs when the person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction. They most commonly experience several different symptoms, including:

  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Abnormally increased fever.
  • Aggression.
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations (sensations and images that seem real though they are not).
  • Muscle pains.
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Overactive reflexes.
  • Panic states.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Restlessness.
  • Tremors.
  • Weakness.

Overdose cases may also experience heart problems, including an irregular heartbeat leading to a heart attack, nerve problems that can lead to a seizure, abnormally high or low blood pressure, and circulation failure. In addition, an overdose can result in convulsions, coma, and fatal poisoning.

How many people are at risk of a serious problem ?

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, between 2005 and 2010, the number of emergency department visits involving ADHD stimulant medications increased from 13,379 to 31,244 visits. A graph from the same report is shown below, to illustrate the main age groups at risk. [10]

Addiction Potential

So, is Adderall addictive?

Yes, Adderall is addictive. It has a high potential for misuse, as outlined in the FDA docket on Adderall. Furthermore, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration classifies Adderall as Schedule II medications because of their high potential for abuse and dependence. Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous. [11]

In technical medical terms, any stimulant used at high enough doses can become addictive. This is because stimulants affect the mesolimbic pathway in the brain, creating a cycle of reward and desire. However, most people who take Adderall as prescribed DO NOT become addicted to the stimulant. Instead, the habit of taking the medicine as part of a daily routine can slowly be weaned with medical supervision.

Non-medical use of Adderall is of special interest to policymakers because, as an amphetamine, Adderall is among the group of legally approved drugs classified as having the highest potential for dependence or abuse. So, people who take Adderall without a prescription or who do not take Adderall as prescribed have a relatively high potential to abuse and/or become addicted to the medicine. They can lose control over drug use or begin to compulsively seek and take Adderall despite adverse consequences.

Signs of Problem

There are some medical signs that Adderall is not working for you therapeutically. As outlined on the drug warning label, the following are signs to watch out for:

  • Convulsions.
  • Deficiency in work performance.
  • Drug cravings.
  • Difficulties in the person’s decision-making ability.
  • Extreme fatigue most of the day.
  • General agitation and restlessness in the behavior of the person.
  • Hallucinations (sensations and images that seem real though they are not).
  • Interruption, largely, of normal sleep cycles.
  • Loss of interest in the activities that the person once enjoyed.
  • Numbness in the fingers and toes.
  • Paranoia.
  • Problems with personal relationships.
  • Psychosis.
  • Unusual aggressive behavior.

But…what if you’re addicted?

If you think you may have a problem with a prescription drug like Adderall, we suggest first that you confide in someone you trust. Then, schedule an appointment for a brief review and assessment with your primary or family doctor. You may feel embarrassed to talk about it, but remember that medical professionals are trained to help you, not to judge you. S/He may then refer you to any of the following professionals for a full evaluation:

  1. An addiction specialist (medical doctor).
  2. A psychotherapist, or addiction counselor.
  3. A psychiatrist.
  4. A licensed clinical social worker.

It is easier to tackle the problem early before it becomes a more pervasive addiction and leads to more serious problems. Remember, a problem with drug abuse is a medical problem. Addiction is treated medically. You can get better.

How To Get Diagnosed

The best way to be diagnosed for a possible problem with Adderall is to seek diagnosis from the professionals listed above. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), a significant pattern of Adderall abuse is indicated when two or more of the following symptoms are present within a 12-month period [12]:

  • Failure to fulfill home or family responsibilities or commitments associated with work or school because of Adderall use.
  • Repeated use of the substance in physically dangerous situations such as operating mechanical equipment or driving a car.
  • A strong compulsion to use Adderall in spite of an awareness that continued use results in negative personal or social consequences such as:
    • Arguments with a partner or spouse.
    • Fighting.
    • Financial problems.
    • Job loss.
  • Recurrent arrests or other legal problems connected with using Adderall.

For a full list of screening and assessment tools used by medical professionals for substance use disorders, please see this University of Washington website. [13]

Your Adderall Questions

Do you still have doubts about whether or not you’re using Adderall correctly? Please ask your questions in the comments section below and will we get to you as soon as possible. If you need more information about stimulant drugs, please call us on the hotline number listed above or use the search tool bar at the top of the page.

Reference Sources: [1] FDA: Adderall
[2] SEC: Alcobra, Ltd.
[3] FDA: Adderall And Adderall XR (Amphetamines) Information
[4] SAMHSA: Prescription Drug Use And Misuse In The United States: Results From The 2015 National Survey On Drug Use And Health
[5] NIDA: Prescription Drug Abuse
[6] HUB: Adderall Abuse On The Rise Among Young Adults, Johns Hopkins Study Suggests
[7] NCBI: Nonmedical Prescription Stimulant Use Among College Students: Why We Need To Do Something And What We Need To Do
[8] NIDA FOR TEENS: 5 Myths About ADHD Drugs
[9] FDA: Medication Guide Adderall XR®
[10] SAMHDA: Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN)
[11] DEA: Amphetamines
[12] APA: Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V)
[13] ADAI LIBRARY: Substance Use Screening & Assessment Instruments Database
DEA: Drug Schedules
NCBI: Prescription Stimulant Medication Misuse: Where Are We And Where Do We Go From Here?
NIDA: Prescription Stimulants
NIH: Misuse Of Prescription Drugs
TOXNET: Amphetamine
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. is a general surgeon practicing women's focused medici...
Dr. Goecke is a medical doctor and general surgeon with personal experience of...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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