What Medical Conditions Look Like ADHD?

If your child has trouble sitting still and paying attention in school, is constantly losing things, interrupting, and talking in an “outside voice,” don’t just assume that they have attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, or ADHD.

It might seem like an obvious diagnosis, but before you start forming opinions, you should know that it’s not that simple. A doctor has to identify ADHD through observing your child’s behavior. There are no blood tests or brain scans to give a definite diagnosis.

And there are many other disorders that have the same, or similar, symptoms as ADHD, so it’s important for your doctor to look for all possibilities before coming to a conclusion.

Conditions Similar to ADHD

Your child’s behavioral issues could be due to any number of biological, physiological, and emotional disorders that appear like ADHD. These are some of the most common.

Anxiety disorders. About one-fifth of kids with ADHD also have some type of anxiety disorder, including separation anxiety, social anxiety, or general anxiety. And children with ADHD are more likely than others to get anxiety. The type of medication they take for ADHD makes a big difference if they also have anxiety. Stimulants can make anxiety worse, but antidepressants can help it.

Depression. About 1 in 7 children with ADHD are also diagnosed with depression. Experts think it could be made worse by the stress from having ADHD. To complicate things even more, certain ADHD medications have side effects that can look like symptoms of depression, including changes in eating and sleeping habits.

Oppositional defiant disorder. Kids who lose their temper a lot, refuse to follow rules, argue with adults, and say mean things to other people are often diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD. It usually goes away within 3 years in about 60% of kids. But studies have shown that about 30% of children with ODD develop conduct disorder.

Learning disabilities. Around half of children with ADHD also have a learning disability. Many kids with learning disabilities also get into trouble at school for not listening, not finishing work, or being disorganized. Like ADHD, a learning disability doesn’t affect intelligence, but can make kids lag behind others in school and at work.

Bipolar disorder. Studies have shown that symptoms of bipolar disorder often overlap with those of ADHD, making it hard to diagnose both these disorders.
Hearing or vision loss. If your child can’t see or hear properly, they can have trouble at school. They might not be able to see the board, or hear their teacher. These issues can lead to poor grades and bad conduct, which might seem like ADHD-like symptoms when they’re not.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 12, 2020
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