How Does Flakka Affect Your Brain

Estimated reading time: 33 minute(s)

People who are familiar with the drug market have been hearing the word flakka for some time now. As a synthetic drug, it has been designed to skirt the law while getting people high more easily. Because the chemical structure of flakka was not particularly illegal in any area of the United States until 2014, it was easier to purchase it from paraphernalia shops, convenience stores, and even online. The producers of flakka used to label the product “not for human consumption” as a way to get it across customs without any issues. These factors caused a sudden surge in flakka use, and a rising number of people started reporting to local emergency rooms with the consequent side effects.

Today, flakka remains among the most commonly abused drugs on the streets. Understanding how does flakka affect the brain is imperative to acknowledge how risky it can be and to motivate yourself or a loved one to quit using. It

What is Flakka: A Rundown

Also known as α-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (alpha-PVP), flakka is a manmade psychoactive drug loaded with synthetic cathinone.[1]  Also called gravel on the street, the substance possesses similar effects as that of amphetamines, MDMA, and cocaine, making it popular among youngsters and older adults alike. Historically, synthetic substances with cathinone have been known as bath salts, primarily including methylone, mephedrone, and 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Flakka is a more recent addition to this family and is available in the form of pink or white crystals.

Inside the human body, flakka works by reducing the reabsorption of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain to produce a high. When this happens, the brain and the rest of the nervous system get flooded with mood-regulating neurotransmitters, which ultimately lead to the development of several pleasurable psychological and physical effects.  However, in doing so, the substance can also lead to many side effects, such as self-harm, aggression, violence, chest pain, and raised heart rate and blood pressure.

There are different ways to consume flakka, such as orally, injecting it in veins, snorting it, or vaporizing it with an e-cigarette. Vaporizing the substance is the fastest way to make it enter the bloodstream; hence, people using this method of use are at the highest risk of overdosing on flakka. As a stimulant of the central nervous system, the active compounds in flakka can cause excitability and paranoia, which is as powerful as cocaine, bath salts, or meth.

Due to the drug’s potent effects, flakka has very high addiction potential. However, scientists are not sure about its mechanism of addiction and severity as flakka has not been on the market for long.

How Does Flakka Affect Your Brain and Body?

Synthetic cathinones, the active ingredients in flakka, can be highly dangerous and addictive. Some of the worst outcomes associated with their use occur when people inject or snort them. The risk may increase in people who use flakka with other drugs. Following are some of its side effects on brain health: [2] 

The side effects mentioned above may last for as few hours or as long as a few days. In addition to its effects on the brain, flakka use can lead to the following:

  • Heart attacks
  • Suicide
  • Homicide
  • Kidney failure

Many users, especially those who have been abusing flakka for a long time, may experience significant brain damage due to prolonged periods of delirium. This damage is widespread and can be permanent in many cases. Additionally, some people may end up having seizures as their brains lose access to oxygen. Others may develop swellings in the brain or experience a stroke. [3] All these potential side effects can ultimately lead to severe brain damage.

As per the American Association of Poison Control Centers, emergency room visits and calls to emergency lines secondary to the use of cathinones were on the rise from 2009 to 2012. However, the use of flakka has significantly dropped since then, owing to the strict check of the relevant authorities on the sale and purchase of these substances. Regulation of flakka’s illegal sale has also helped in this decline, Nevertheless, flakka still presents a great risk to those taking it along with those who are in the company of someone who has consumed this drug. Following are some signs that may indicate that someone is under the influence of flakka and should be avoided:

  • Extra talkative
  • Highly sociable
  • Dilated pupils
  • Exhibiting pressured speech
  • Tremors, shakiness, jitteriness, and twitching
  • Acting delirious or grandiose
  • Sweating and flushing
  • Paranoia
  • Experiencing seizure-like movements
  • Suddenly acting psychotic without any previous history of these symptoms
  • Feeling lethargic, depressed, comatose apathetic, or immobile

How Does Flakka Affect Your Brain: What is Flakka Addiction?

Addiction is one of the most common and important answers to how does flakka affect your brain. Despite having multiple negative effects, thousands of people continue to put themselves at risk by using the drug consistently. This consistent use, often in high doses, can easily make a person fall prey to addiction. The problem is particularly prevalent in poor populations who cannot afford expensive drugs and may use flakka as an alternative to cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. Others choose flakka because it produces a longer and more intense high, usually lasting for up to five hours, compared to other drugs like cocaine, whose effects may wind up in as little as half an hour.

Developing flakka addiction is a serious risk as the ingredients of this drug can be highly unpredictable, and most of them are not safe for human consumption. Even if a person uses a type of flakka with known ingredients, they may still end up with terrible side effects. Chronic use of this substance can cause compulsive cravings and slowly lead to tolerance. As the duration of use lengthens, so does the severity of addiction symptoms. Such people may routinely experience a host of psychological and physical symptoms, such as paranoia, disorientation, poor judgment, delusions, unpredictable mood swings, aggression, etc.

If you are worried that someone you love is developing an addiction to flakka, look out for the following symptoms:

  • Apathy: Anyone battling an underlying addiction is likely to exhibit extreme apathy, such as losing interest in any activity they previously loved.
  • Legal Issues: People who engage in illegal substance use, including flakka, may frequently run into trouble with the law due to illegal drug possession, theft, driving under the influence, and more.
  • Compulsive Lying: People abusing flakka may routinely lie to others to cover up their abuse and keep up appearances in front of the world.
  • Financial Trouble: Individuals with flakka addiction may often face financial issues as they often lose their jobs due to heavy drug use or may spend all their money to obtain more drugs.
  • Isolation: Addiction may cause people to distance themselves from others, especially to hide their addiction. Others may develop new social circles to involve people with similar drug use habits.

Another way to confirm addiction is by looking for potential flakka withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms occur when a user stops using the drug cold turkey or drastically reduces its dose. The condition hits long-term users more commonly but can occur in anyone. For most people, the condition involves a blend of physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms, including the following:

  • Uncomfortable crash
  • Intense flakka cravings
  • Extreme depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Panic attacks
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Delusions and hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Night sweats
  • Increased sweating
  • Aggression and agitation
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain

Unfortunately, experts have not discovered any medications that may particularly help ease the flakka withdrawal symptoms directly. However, some people have reported benefitting from benzodiazepines to keep themselves stable. It is imperative to remember that the best way to manage flakka withdrawal and addiction is under the guidance of professionals in a rehabilitation center. There is not enough data to understand how long a flakka withdrawal episode may last and how intense it may get, so it is always safe to have professional help in hand as needed.

Treating Flakka Addiction: What to Expect

Deciding to quit flakka use is the first and most significant step toward recovery. Getting over flakka addiction may not be easy, but it is possible, especially with professional and personal help. Following are some tips to make recovery and healing easier and sooner:

Understand Triggers

There can be various reasons why someone may turn to using flakka. For some, the reason is ongoing stress; for others, peer pressure is responsible for sending them down the addiction spiral. Identifying the reasons and determining how to manage them is important to overcome addiction.

Involve Loved Ones

Addiction is a difficult disease to overcome, especially for someone with no support. Always involve your loved ones on your recovery journey and seek their support to overcome common challenges. For people without family support, joining a community support group can help.

Join a Professional Rehab

A professional rehab has a team of highly experienced and trained individuals who identify unique circumstances and triggers for addiction and develop individualized plans for each person. These rehabs also provide necessary support and help at various levels of care to address all issues as needed.


How is flakka different from bath salts?

Flakka shares many structural and chemical similarities with bath salts and both substances can exert nearly identical effects on users. The only structural difference is the presence of an atomic cluster called 3,4-methylenedioxy motif in bath salts that flakka lacks. Nonetheless, experts believe both substances carry an equal potential for addiction. Both flakka and bath salts can cause panic attacks, hallucinations, increased sex drive and sociability, and paranoia. The products are also packaged and sold similarly with a label that says “not for human consumption.” Moreover, their major selling and purchasing occur under innocuous names such as jewelry cleaners or plant food.

Who uses flakka?

Because flakka was initially legal in most places across the U.S., underage teenagers often used to purchase it as a replacement for cigarettes or alcohol. Additionally, flakka also served as a cheaper replacement for people who were too poor to afford cocaine every day, as its packet was priced between $5 and $15 only. Reports from the emergency rooms have indicated that most people who use flakka are males in their 20s and 30s.

Is flakka addictive?

Flakka is relatively new in the drug market; hence, experts are not very sure about its addiction cycle. However, reports have emerged about its potential to cause tolerance, meaning people using it require higher doses to achieve the same high as with the first dose. Because of its tolerance-inducing potential, there is a high risk of addiction associated with flakka use. Some studies have concluded that the substance can be as addictive as bath salts. Because of its chemical similarity to methamphetamines, the comedown following a dose of flakka can also lead to withdrawal symptoms, including pain, depression, and fatigue. Based on these factors, it can be said that flakka does carry the potential to cause addiction.

How can I know if someone is under the influence of flakka?

Using flakka may lead to the following symptoms in people:

  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Panic attacks
  • Nose bleeds
  • Increased sex drive
  • Decreased inhibition
  • Increased sociability

What are some street names for flakka?

Flakka is commonly known on the streets as bath salts or gravel.


1 Patocka J, Zhao B, Wu W, Klimova B, Valis M, Nepovimova E, Kuca K. Flakka: New Dangerous Synthetic Cathinone on the Drug Scene. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Oct 31;21(21):8185. doi: 10.3390/ijms21218185. PMID: 33142953; PMCID: PMC7663692.

2 Crespi C. Flakka-Induced Prolonged Psychosis. Case Rep Psychiatry. 2016;2016:3460849. doi: 10.1155/2016/3460849. Epub 2016 Jun 22. PMID: 27418996; PMCID: PMC4933860.

3 Heinonen T, Korvenoja A, Pekkonen E. A Case of Alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone (Flakka)-Induced Ischemic Stroke. Case Rep Neurol. 2021 Feb 16;13(1):131-134. doi: 10.1159/000512811. PMID: 33790771; PMCID: PMC7989677.

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