Understand Long- and Short-Acting ADHD Medications

Medication for ADHD is a lot like a pair of eyeglasses. Just as your glasses sharpen fuzzy vision, meds help your brain focus. They work as long as they’re active in the body. Some are good for a few hours, while others can last most of the day.

Stimulants are the medications that most people use for ADHD symptoms. They don’t cure it, but they boost levels of chemicals in your brain that help you focus and pay attention. 

There are two types of stimulants: short-acting and long-acting. They use basically the same medicine -- either amphetamines or methylphenidates. What’s different is how they release the drugs into your body.

If your doctor thinks a stimulant is right for you, it’s helpful to know the differences between these two kinds.

Short-Acting ADHD Treatments

These start working in about 30 to 45 minutes and generally wear off in 3 to 6 hours. They include:

Amphetamines:

  • Mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall, Evekeo)
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, ProCentra)

Methylphenidates:

  • Dexmethylphenidate SR (Focalin)
  • Methylphenidate immediate release (Ritalin, Methylin)

This kind of medicine helps if you need to focus for just a few hours. Perhaps you’re working on spreadsheets or writing a report and need to be sharp.

A short-acting med peaks and falls in your bloodstream quickly. You might feel irritable when it wears off. That’s called a rebound effect.

If you want to control symptoms all day, you’ll need to pop more than one pill. That can be inconvenient and hard to remember to do when you’re busy.

Long-Acting ADHD Treatments

Long-acting drugs are designed to work in phases. Part of them release into your bloodstream shortly after you take them (typically in the morning) and the rest a few hours later.

These meds are a good choice if you need symptom relief all day but want to take just one pill. Some people say they feel “smoother” than short-acting drugs because they cause fewer ups and downs. However, some people find they need to supplement their long-acting medicine with a short-acting one later in the day, when the effects may wear off.

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Your choices include:

Amphetamines:

  • Extended-release mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall XR): last 8-12 hours
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine Spansule): 6-8 hours
  • Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse): 10-12 hours

Methylphenidates:

  • Methylphenidate extended release:

(Concerta): 8-12 hours

(Metadate ER): 6-8 hours

(Metadate CD): 8-10 hours

(Methylin ER): 6-8 hours

(Ritalin LA): 8-10 hours

  • Dexmethylphenidate extended release: (Focalin XR) 6-10

How long the medication lasts depends on how quickly your body processes it. If it’s not long enough for you, you can ask your doctor about adding a short-acting “booster” med in the late afternoon or evening.

ADHD Meds: Trial and Error

It may take some time to find the right medication and the right dose. Call your doctor if yours isn’t working for you or if side effects like trouble sleeping or headaches are bothering you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 04, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD): “Medication Management.”

Child Mind Institute: “Understanding ADHD Medications,” “Side Effects of ADHD Medication.”

Michelle Frank, psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI, and vice president, Attention Deficit Disorder Association.

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