LSD is the shortened name for the molecule D-lysergic acid diethylamde, a synthetic hallucinogen associated with counterculture movements in the 1960s. The substance was first synthesized from ergot, a fungus that grows on grains like rye, in 1938.
Originally, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann thought it was useless since he was searching for a respiratory and circulatory system stimulant. In 1947, however, he consumed some of the drug and discovered that it could cause long-lasting, intense visual and auditory hallucinations with few initial side effects. While it was used in the 1950s and early 1960s to help psychology students understand the experience of schizophrenia, the drug was diverted so widely that it was considered dangerous by the late 1960s, and it was one of the first drugs placed into Schedule I on the Controlled Substances List.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) currently believes LSD to have no accepted medical use and that it’s a dangerous, intoxicating substance when ingested. While some scientists are just beginning to explore the possibilities of small doses of LSD, it is still completely illegal in the United States.
Physical and Psychological Effects from LSD
Short-term effects from LSD begin within 30-90 minutes after it is ingested, which is often either in liquid form using a dropper or dried onto a piece of blotter paper and placed on the tongue. Initial effects from the hallucinogen are likely to last for 6-12 hours, depending on the size of the dose. These effects can include:
- Dilated pupils
- Higher body temperature
- Elevated blood pressure
- Rapid heartbeat
- Higher blood sugar
- Dry mouth / increased salivation
- Tingling in fingers and toes
- Physical weakness / shaking
- Heart palpitations
- Chills and goosebumps
- Stomach upset and nausea
- Changes to appetite
- Blurred vision
People who abuse LSD seek specific psychedelic effects, which include visual hallucinations, a heightened sense of taste or smell, changes in the perception of time and space, depersonalization or the feeling that the mind has left the body, synesthesia, or feeling as though one has a religious experience. Bad trips happen frequently, too, and can include symptoms like intense panic or anxiety, paranoia, delusions, rapid mood swings, fear that one is losing their identity or body, aggression, frightening hallucinations, and seizures. Some people may attempt suicide due to the psychedelic effects that occur during a bad trip.
LSD Can Cause Long-Term Damage
Although the effects of LSD are intense and may cause acute problems like accidents or attempted self-harm, the drug is not considered addictive. The DEA states that this is because LSD’s effects last for several hours, up to a day, which prevents compulsive behaviors from developing. Since the effects take hours to leave the body, there is no rapid cycling of a high, sudden crash, and further drug-seeking behavior to achieve the original high.
However, LSD dramatically changes brain chemistry, which can lead to long-term changes. These may clear up, but it can take several years.
- Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD): This condition can be caused by several hallucinogens, but it is most closely associated with LSD. HPPD is usually called flashbacks, when the individual suddenly re-experiences feelings or sensations from a previous LSD high. This can include halos around lights or visual trails coming off light sources. Sometimes, new visual imagery occurs during a flashback, but the experience typically involves emotional sensations with some visual or auditory changes. HPPD flashbacks are usually harmless, but sometimes, they can cause emotional distress. People with pre-existing mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or psychotic disorders like schizophrenia may suffer a recurrence of effects associated with that condition.There is no specific medical treatment for HPPD. Flashbacks are typically rare, although they can be disturbing when they occur randomly. Most people do not feel that they need treatment, but on occasion, flashbacks may be frequent enough to cause anxiety about the condition. Treating secondary psychological effects is usually how physicians and therapists approach HPPD. Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, or Lamictal, an anti-seizure medicine, are sometimes prescribed in extreme HPPD cases.
HPPD is typically considered irreversible, although it may clear up on its own over several years. Many people who abuse LSD do not develop HPPD, but for those who do, it may be a chronic condition.
- Serotonin syndrome: Rarely, LSD can trigger serotonin syndrome because this drug floods the brain with neurotransmitters, mostly dopamine and serotonin. This condition is most likely in people who already take prescription psychiatric medications, particularly antidepressants, which change the balance of neurotransmitters to ease mood problems. Signs of serotonin syndrome include:
- Agitation or restlessness
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Loss of coordination
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid changes in blood pressure
- High body temperature or fever
- While serotonin syndrome is an acute risk, the effects of seizures or high fever can cause brain damage that will last for a long time. Brain damage may heal, with immediate and appropriate medical attention; however, there is a risk that mood conditions, memory trouble, or learning disorders from brain damage may never go away.
- Drug-induced psychosis: LSD will not cause psychosis, but for people who are predisposed for this type of mental illness, the condition may be triggered by any potent hallucinogen, including LSD. It is important to understand one’s family history as part of the risk associated with abusing drugs, including hallucinogens, which may be promoted anecdotally through popular culture as “safe.” There is no such thing as safe substance abuse.
- Psychosis can be treated, but it will not go away. Even bad trips on LSD will end, but a psychotic disorder is a chronic health condition that requires a combination of therapy and medication to prevent or manage severe symptoms.
Overdose on LSD Is Possible
Typically, LSD is not considered a drug that causes overdose. There are no recorded instances of a person taking LSD and dying because of physical side effects. However, if one takes a very large dose of this hallucinogen and has a long, paranoid trip, this may lead to a suicide attempt, other kinds of self-harm, aggression toward others, or experiencing an accident because one cannot tell the difference between reality and hallucination.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there were 2.5 million emergency department visits due to drug misuse; just over half of these involved intentional abuse of illicit drugs, and many of these involved multiple drugs at the same time. LSD is no longer a widely abused drug, but among the ED visits, 4,819 admissions involved this hallucinogen. This indicates that taking LSD can cause physical and mental side effects that are more intense and potentially harmful than many assume. These effects may also lead to long-term health problems due to underlying heart conditions, stomach or lung problems, or brain damage.
Get Help Endings LSD Abuse
Although LSD may not lead to the same level of compulsive behaviors as much shorter-acting drugs like heroin or cocaine, it is still very dangerous to abuse and can cause long-term harm. Working with addiction specialists to detox, diagnose any potential lasting effects from LSD, and get evidence-based treatment will help to end struggles with hallucinogen abuse. It is especially important to get help if LSD is mixed with other drugs, like alcohol or prescription drugs, which can change how the hallucinogen affects the brain and may lead to physical dependence, tolerance, and compulsive behaviors indicating addiction. Developing chronic mental or physical problems from LSD abuse will also require long-term healthcare, so get help quitting this drug before these problems begin.