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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common condition that affects children and adolescents and can continue into adulthood for some.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 3% to 5% of children have ADHD. Some experts, though, say ADHD may occurs in 8% to 10% of school-aged children. Some experts also question whether kids really outgrow ADHD. What that means is that this disorder may be more common in adults than previously thought.

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Children with ADHD generally have problems paying attention or concentrating. They can't seem to follow directions and are easily bored or frustrated with tasks. They also tend to move constantly and are impulsive, not stopping to think before they act. These behaviors can be normal in children. But they occur more often than usual and are more severe in a child with ADHD.

The behaviors that are common with ADHD interfere with a child's ability to function at school and at home.

Adults with ADHD may have difficulty with time management, organizational skills, goal setting, and employment. They may also have problems with relationships, self-esteem, and addictions.

What are ADHD symptoms in children?

Symptoms of ADHD in children are generally grouped into three categories: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.

Inattention -- A child with ADHD:

  • Is easily distracted
  • Does not follow directions or finish tasks
  • Does not appear to be listening when someone is speaking
  • Does not pay attention and makes careless mistakes
  • Is forgetful about daily activities
  • Has problems organizing daily tasks
  • Avoids or dislikes activities that require sitting still or a sustained effort
  • Often loses things, including personal items
  • Has a tendency to daydream

Hyperactivity -- A child with ADHD:

  • Often squirms, fidgets, or bounces when sitting
  • Does not stay seated as expected
  • Has difficulty playing quietly
  • Is always moving, such as running or climbing on things (In teens and adults, this is more commonly described as a sense of restlessness)
  • Talks excessively

Impulsivity -- A child with ADHD:

  • Has difficulty waiting for his or her turn
  • Blurts out answers before the question has been completed
  • Often interrupts others

For in depth information, see WebMD's ADHD in Children.

What are ADHD symptoms in adults?

Adult ADHD symptoms may be different than the symptoms in children. In addition, they may stem directly from ADHD or may be the result of behavioral issues. Symptoms include:

  • Chronic lateness and forgetfulness
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Employment problems
  • Difficulty controlling anger
  • Impulsiveness
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Poor organization skills
  • Procrastination
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Chronic boredom
  • Difficulty concentrating when reading
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Relationship problems

For in depth information, see WebMD's Adult ADHD.

What causes ADHD?

The exact cause of ADHD is not known, although researchers continue to study the brain for clues. They suspect that there are several factors that may contribute to the condition, including:

  • Heredity: The fact that ADHD tends to run in families suggests that children may inherit a tendency to develop ADHD from their parents.
  • Chemical imbalance: Experts believe an imbalance of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that transmit nerve impulses may be a factor in the development of ADHD symptoms.
  • Brain changes: Areas of the brain that control attention are less active in children with ADHD than in children without ADHD.
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