Drugs to Treat ADHD
A variety of medications can be used to treat
ADHD. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), data
collected in 2011 indicated that 6.1 percent of children in the U.S. were
taking ADHD medication.
Medication is often an important and
difficult reality for parents of children with ADHD. Central nervous system stimulants
like Adderall and Ritalin are the most commonly prescribed drugs. Your doctor
may recommend other types as well.
Be sure to research drug information
thoroughly, and then discuss with your doctor or a healthcare professional.
Central Nervous System Stimulants
Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants are the most common type
of medication prescribed for ADHD. They have the longest track record of
treating ADHD and have the most research to verify their effectiveness.
Researchers are not sure exactly how CNS stimulants ease the
symptoms of ADHD. It’s believed that these drugs work by increasing dopamine
levels in the brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with:
For many people with ADHD, stimulants can increase their ability
to concentrate and focus. These drugs can also ease hyperactive and impulsive
behaviors. CNS stimulants for ADHD come in both short- and long-acting forms.
Short-acting stimulants peak after several hours and must be taken
two to three times a day. These usually come in pill or capsule form. Long-acting,
or extended-release, stimulants last for eight to 12 hours and are usually
taken just once a day. Extended-release stimulants contain the same drugs as
short-acting forms; the difference is the way in which the drug is delivered
into the body. Extended-release stimulants are usually taken in the form of a
pill or capsule as well. However, an extended-release methylphenidate patch was
recently put on the market as an alternative to pills.
CNS Stimulants for ADHD
CNS stimulants used to treat ADHD include the
- Amphetamine-based stimulants (Adderall, Dexedrine, Dextrostat). These medicines are
made up of either dextroamphetamine or a combination of dextroamphetamine
- Dextromethamphetamine (Desoxyn)
- Dextromethylphenidate (Focalin)
(Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate, Ritalin)
CNS stimulants are highly addictive. They should only be used
under the supervision of a doctor. The medications can cause some adverse side
effects, including decreased appetite, weight loss, trouble sleeping,
irritability when the medication wears off, and, in rare cases, development of
facial tics or heart conditions.
Although stimulants are commonly prescribed for the treatment of
ADHD, recent research has discovered that there may be harmful effects on the
heart health of children taking them. This is especially true in children with
pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart-rhythm
A task force of the American Heart Association (AHA) and
American College of Cardiology (ACC) recently revised their recommendations on
stimulants. The task force added a provision stating that doctors should
carefully monitor the heart health of children who require stimulant medication
to treat ADHD.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also added warnings to the labels of stimulants to warn
patients about an increased risk of heart and psychiatric problems.
Non-stimulant drugs are often considered when stimulants have not
worked or have caused intolerable side effects.
Atomoxetine is one of only two non-stimulant drugs approved by the
FDA for ADHD treatment. As with CNS stimulants, researchers are not sure
exactly why atomoxetine works. Atomoxetine, like stimulants, affects levels of
neurotransmitters in the brain. However, atomoxetine boosts levels of the
chemical norepinephrine. Atomoxetine is longer acting than stimulants. Its
effects can last more than 24 hours.
Atomoxetine may be a good option for ADHD patients who are also
experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression because it also has some
antidepressant properties. However, atomoxetine doesn’t appear to be as
effective as stimulant medications for treating symptoms of hyperactivity.
Side effects of atomoxetine may include:
- reduced appetite
- weight loss
Guanfacine (Intuniv) is a non-stimulant approved by the FDA in 2009 for treating ADHD. In
2011, it was also approved for use alongside CNS drugs in treating ADHD in children.
Guanfacine is primarily a blood pressure medication. But it has also been shown
in clinical trials to effectively treat symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity,
and aggression. It’s less helpful when it comes to attention problems. Other
blood pressure drugs are sometimes prescribed off-label (medication prescribed
for an unapproved indication, age group, dose, or method of administration) to
Although the FDA has not approved antidepressants for the
treatment of ADHD, doctors will sometimes prescribe these medications to
patients who don’t respond well to stimulants or to atomoxetine.
Certain second-generation antipsychotics are also sometimes
prescribed off-label to treat ADHD in patients who don’t respond well to
stimulants or atomoxetine. These drugs target multiple neurotransmitters in the