Hallucinogens: Definition, Effects & Risks

What are hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens are a diverse group of drugs that alter perception (awareness of surrounding objects and conditions), thoughts, and feelings. They cause hallucinations, or sensations and images that seem real though they are not.

Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms (or their extracts) or can be human-made. People have used hallucinogens for centuries, mostly for religious rituals. Some hallucinogens also cause users to feel out of control or disconnected from their body and environment.

How do hallucinogens affect the brain?

Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord. Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates:

  • Mood
  • Sensory perception
  • Sleep
  • Hunger
  • Body temperature
  • Sexual behavior
  • Muscle control

Other hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate, which regulates:

  • Pain perception
  • Responses to the environment
  • Emotion
  • Learning and memory
  • Short-Term Effects

The effects of hallucinogens can begin within 20 to 90 minutes and can last as long as 6 to 12 hours. Salvia’s effects are more short-lived, appearing in less than 1 minute and lasting less than 30 minutes. Hallucinogen users refer to the experiences brought on by these drugs as “trips,” calling the unpleasant experiences “bad trips.”

Short-term effects of hallucinations

Along with hallucinations, other short-term general effects include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Intensified feelings and sensory experiences
  • Changes in sense of time (for example, time passing by slowly)

Long-term effects of hallucinations

Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that ketamine users may develop symptoms that include ulcers in the bladder, kidney problems, and poor memory. Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as:

  • Speech problems
  • Memory loss
  • Weight loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts

What are other risks of hallucinogens?

Some psilocybin users risk poisoning and possibly death from using a poisonous mushroom by mistake.

High doses of PCP can cause seizures, coma, and death, though death more often results from accidental injury or suicide during PCP intoxication. Interactions between PCP and depressants such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (prescribed to relieve anxiety or promote sleep—alprazolam [Xanax®], for instance) can also lead to coma.

Some bizarre behaviors resulting from hallucinogens that users display in public places may prompt public health or law enforcement personnel intervention.

While hallucinogens’ effects on the developing fetus are unknown, researchers do know that mescaline in peyote may affect the fetus of a pregnant woman using the drug.

Are hallucinogens addictive?

Evidence indicates that certain hallucinogens can be addictive or that people can develop a tolerance to them. Use of some hallucinogens also produces tolerance to other similar drugs.

Scientists need more research into the tolerance or addiction potential of hallucinogens.

How can people get treatment for addiction to hallucinogens?

There are no government-approved medications to treat addiction to hallucinogens. While inpatient and/or behavioral treatments can be helpful for patients with a variety of addictions, scientists need more research to find out if behavioral therapies are effective for addiction to hallucinogens.

Source: NIDA. (2016, January 11). Hallucinogens. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens on 2019, March 29

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.