Nov 15, 2022 - Health

America’s Adderall shortage

Total Adderall prescriptions in the U.S.
Data: IQVIA; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Prescriptions for stimulants have been skyrocketing as it’s become easier and easier to get a diagnosis.

Why it matters: The rise in demand for Adderall has triggered a shortage of the drug — raising fears that some people can't get medicines they rely on, while many others may be misdiagnosed.

  • Some are experiencing stimulant withdrawal symptoms. Others are turning to unregulated dealers to replace their prescriptions, and others still are turning to illegal — and highly dangerous — drugs as substitutes, WIRED reports.

By the numbers: A whopping 41.4 million Adderall prescriptions were dispensed in the U.S. in 2021, up more than 10% from 2020, according to IQVIA, a health research firm.

What's happening: Getting a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD — which can be treated by Adderall and other stimulants — got significantly easier during the pandemic.

  • A wave of telemedicine startups hit TikTok and Instagram with advertisements suggesting that people should look into ADHD medication if they felt distracted.
  • Some startups diagnosed people with ADHD and prescribed stimulants after 30-minute video calls — entirely remotely, and much faster than a typical diagnosis from an in-person psychiatrist, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Yes, but: The trouble with such rapid diagnoses is that it can be difficult to tell whether ADHD is actually the problem, experts say.

  • "Anxiety can present as ADHD, and depression can present as ADHD," said Sanford Newmark, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco's medical school.
  • The new spike in diagnoses and prescriptions is raising questions about whether ADHD is being over-diagnosed.

What's next: Now, supply can't keep up with demand, and experts are warning that we could be on the brink of a public health crisis.

  • “If you have lots of people moving at the same time from the pharmaceutical market to the illicit market, lots of bad things can happen. ... Conditions are very much ripe for that to happen here," Leo Beletsky, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, told WIRED.
Go deeper