With diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder on the rise in Nebraska, drug and alcohol counselors are warning against the uncertain effects of mixing ADHD medication with alcohol.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2011 that more than 11.6 percent of children ages 4 to 17 in Nebraska had been diagnosed with ADHD, compared with 9 percent in 2007. Of those children diagnosed, 86.2 percent were being treated with some form of ADHD medication.
Meanwhile, a 2013 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study said that more than 80 percent of college students drink alcohol.
Combining the two substances could have costly effects.
“We’re starting to see lots of scary stories online and we’re starting to talk to young people with very negative experiences on ADHD medication and alcohol,” said Duke Engel, an alcohol and drug abuse counselor with Counseling and Psychological Services at UNL.
ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders and is characterized by difficulty focusing, difficulty controlling behavior and hyperactivity. One of the most common drugs used to control the symptoms of ADHD is Adderall. Adderall is a stimulant, which slowly increases dopamine levels in the brain in a more natural manner.
However, that is not the only effect the drug has on the body. Adderall, like other ADHD medicines, also increases blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.
“There are a lot of people, certainly some students, who have certainly benefited from being diagnosed with their ADHD and taking their prescribed medications,” Engel said. “For some, it’s been a real life changer.”
Adding another layer of complication is the knowledge that some students used ADHD medications as study aids rather than to treat a disorder.
“UNL Police does occasionally get a case of ADHD medication use by students without a prescription,” said Charlotte Evans, assistant chief of UNL Police Department, in an email.
Alcohol is a depressant with effects that can become apparent within 10 minutes of consumption. Along with impairing the brain’s communication with itself, alcohol causes irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and strokes.
Engel said that whenever drugs that have mood-altering qualities are mixed, such as Adderall and alcohol, there is a great risk of exacerbating the effects of both substances. Mixing the two different drugs is not like adding one thing on top of another but more like multiplying the effects and risks of both.
Engel speculated that this exacerbation is what makes mixing ADHD medication and alcohol so dangerous because people using the substances are not prepared for the effects. And ADHD medications make it harder to recognize the physical cues of drunkenness, he added, which could introduce more risks.
“I want to emphasize, we don’t know that much about this,” he said.
Few medical studies have been conducted to learn about the joint effects of the two substances because of the risks such studies could present to test subjects.
“With what little we are starting to find out about mixing these substances, I would be extremely cautious and careful,” Engel said.