ADHD Medications

Key Points about ADHD Medications

  • Medications for ADHD help many children focus and be more successful at school, home, and play. Avoiding negative experiences now may actually help prevent addictions and other emotional problems later.
  • About 80 percent of children who need medication for ADHD still need it as teenagers. Over 50 percent need medication as adults.
  • Current medications do not cure ADHD.

Stimulant Medications for ADHD

The most common type of medication used for treating ADHD is called a "stimulant." Although it may seem unusual to treat ADHD with a medication considered a stimulant, it actually has a calming effect on children with ADHD. Many types of stimulant medications are available. A few other ADHD medications are non-stimulants and work differently than stimulants. For many children, ADHD medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve their ability to focus, work, and learn. Medication also may improve physical coordination.

However, a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply for all children with ADHD. What works for one child might not work for another. One child might have side effects with a certain medication, while another child may not. Sometimes several different medications or dosages must be tried before finding one that works for a particular child. Any child taking medications must be monitored closely and carefully by caregivers and doctors.

Stimulant medications come in different forms, such as a pill, capsule, liquid, or skin patch. Some medications also come in short-acting, long-acting, or extended release varieties. In each of these varieties, the active ingredient is the same, but it is released differently in the body. Long-acting or extended release forms often allow a child to take the medication just once a day before school, so they don't have to make a daily trip to the school nurse for another dose. Parents and doctors should decide together which medication is best for the child and whether the child needs medication only for school hours or for evenings and weekends, too.

A list of medications and the approved age for use follows.

Trade Name Generic Name Approved Age
Adderall amphetamine 3 and older
Adderall XR amphetamine (extended release) 6 and older
Concerta methylphenidate (long acting) 6 and older
Daytrana methylphenidate patch 6 and older
Desoxyn methamphetamine hydrochloride 6 and older
Dexedrine dextroamphetamine 3 and older
Dextrostat dextroamphetamine 3 and older
Focalin dexmethylphenidate 6 and older
Focalin XR dexmethylphenidate (extended release) 6 and older
Metadate ER methylphenidate (extended release) 6 and older
Metadate CD methylphenidate (extended release) 6 and older
Methylin methylphenidate (oral solution and chewable tablets) 6 and older
Ritalin methylphenidate 6 and older
Ritalin SR methylphenidate (extended release) 6 and older
Ritalin LA methylphenidate (long acting) 6 and older
Strattera atomoxetine 6 and older
Vyvanse lisdexamfetamine dimesylate 6 and older

*Not all ADHD medications are approved for use in adults.

NOTE: "extended release" means the medication is released gradually so that a controlled amount enters the body over a period of time. "Long acting" means the medication stays in the body for a long time.

Side Effects of Stimulant Medications

The most commonly reported side effects are decreased appetite, sleep problems, anxiety, and irritability. Some children also report mild stomachaches or headaches. Most side effects are minor and disappear over time or if the dosage level is lowered.

  • Decreased appetite. Be sure your child eats healthy meals. If this side effect does not go away, talk to your child's doctor. Also talk to the doctor if you have concerns about your child's growth or weight gain while he or she is taking this medication.
  • Sleep problems. If a child cannot fall asleep, the doctor may prescribe a lower dose of the medication or a shorter-acting form. The doctor might also suggest giving the medication earlier in the day, or stopping the afternoon or evening dose. Adding a prescription for a low dose of an antidepressant or a blood pressure medication called clonidine sometimes helps with sleep problems. A consistent sleep routine that includes relaxing elements like warm milk, soft music, or quiet activities in dim light, may also help.
  • Less common side effects. A few children develop sudden, repetitive movements or sounds called tics. These tics may or may not be noticeable. Changing the medication dosage may make tics go away. Some children also may have a personality change, such as appearing "flat" or without emotion. Talk with your child's doctor if you see any of these side effects.

Safety of Stimulant Medications

Under medical supervision, stimulant medications are considered safe. Stimulants do not make children with ADHD feel high, although some kids report feeling slightly different or "funny." Although some parents worry that stimulant medications may lead to substance abuse or dependence, there is little evidence of this.

FDA warning on possible rare side effects

In 2007, the FDA required that all makers of ADHD medications develop Patient Medication Guides that contain information about the risks associated with the medications. The guides must alert patients that the medications may lead to possible cardiovascular (heart and blood) or psychiatric problems. The agency undertook this precaution when a review of data found that ADHD patients with existing heart conditions had a slightly higher risk of strokes, heart attacks, and/or sudden death when taking the medications.

The review also found a slight increased risk, about 1 in 1,000, for medication-related psychiatric problems, such as hearing voices, having hallucinations, becoming suspicious for no reason, or becoming manic (an overly high mood), even in patients without a history of psychiatric problems. The FDA recommends that any treatment plan for ADHD include an initial health history, including family history, and examination for existing cardiovascular and psychiatric problems.

One ADHD medication, the non-stimulant atomoxetine (Strattera), carries another warning. Studies show that children and teenagers who take atomoxetine are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than children and teenagers with ADHD who do not take it. If your child is taking atomoxetine, watch his or her behavior carefully. A child may develop serious symptoms suddenly, so it is important to pay attention to your child's behavior every day. Ask other people who spend a lot of time with your child to tell you if they notice changes in your child's behavior. Call a doctor right away if your child shows any unusual behavior. While taking atomoxetine, your child should see a doctor often, especially at the beginning of treatment, and be sure that your child keeps all appointments with his or her doctor.

Antidepressants for ADHD

Antidepressants are considered a second choice for treatment of in adolescents or adults with ADHD. The older antidepressants, the tricyclics, are sometimes used because they, like the stimulants, affect norepinephrine and dopamine. Venlafaxine (Effexor), a newer antidepressant, is also used for its effect on norepinephrine. Bupropion (Wellbutrin), an antidepressant with an indirect effect on the neurotransmitter dopamine, has been useful in clinical trials on the treatment of ADHD in both children and adults. It has the added attraction of being useful in reducing cigarette smoking.

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© 2010 Vivacare. Last updated March 25, 2013.

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