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Drug Treatment of ADHD

Drug therapy is an important component of treating ADHD. There are many types of medications that can be used to control ADHD symptoms.

These drugs are available in short-acting (immediate-release), intermediate-acting, and long-acting forms. It may take some time for a physician to find the best medication, dosage, and schedule for someone with ADHD. 

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Stimulants for ADHD

A class of drugs called psychostimulants or stimulants have been used to effectively treat ADHD for decades. These drugs increase attention and by helping users to focus their thoughts and ignore distractions. They may also decrease hyperactivity and impulsivity. Stimulant medications are effective in 70% to 80% of patients.

Some experts consider stimulants the first line of treatment for ADHD in children and adolescents. Some stimulants are approved for use in children over 3, while others are approved for children over 6 years of age. 

Stimulant drugs approved to treat ADHD include:

Note that only some of these stimulants -- like Adderall XR, Concerta, Vyvanse, Quillivant XR, and Focalin XR -- are FDA-approved for adults.

Learn more about stimulant therapy.

Nonstimulants Drugs Approved to Treat ADHD

In cases where stimulants don’t work or cause unpleasant side effects, nonstimulants might help. The first nonstimulant medication approved by the FDA was Strattera. It's now used in children, adolescents, and adults. The FDA approved a second nonstimulant drug, Intuniv, for children and teens between ages 6 and 17. Both medications improve concentration and impulse control. Catapres or Tenex are also used in people with ADHD.

Other Drugs to Treat ADHD

When stimulants and nonstimulants aren't effective or well-tolerated, several other drugs are available to treat ADHD. These medications include:

  • Pamelor (desimpramine) or other tricyclic antidepressants
  • Wellbutrin
  • Effexor
  • Kapvay



Side Effects of ADHD Drugs

ADHD drugs sometimes have side effects, but these tend to happen early in treatment and are usually mild and short-lived. The most common side effects of ADHD drugs include:

  • Decreased appetite/weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Jitteriness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Stomachaches 

In most cases, side effects can be relieved using one of the following strategies:

  • Changing the drug dosage
  • Adjusting the schedule of medication
  • Using a different drug

Always consult your health care provider before making any changes in your ADHD treatment regimen.

Rarely, medications for ADHD can cause more serious side effects. For instance, some stimulants are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and sudden death in certain at-risk people. They may also exacerbate psychiatric conditions like psychosis, depression, or anxiety. So before you or your children start taking any ADHD medication, make sure you talk to a doctor about all of the potential risks.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Patricia Quinn, MD on September 02, 2012
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