What are the effects of ADD/ADHD medications?

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Heart problems have been observed in some children who take stimulant medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some people taking these medications have died, and others have had heart attacks, strokes, and other heart problems. As a result, stimulant medications for ADHD now display a warning label that cautions patients about the potential for heart problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics website says that the Food and Drug Administration is still investigating these cases, deciding whether more action needs to be taken. 

According to, pediatricians will evaluate a child's health before prescribing stimulant medications for ADHD to reduce the risk of heart problems. The American Heart Association recommends that children receive an electrocardiogram (ECG) before taking stimulants, but this is not required at this time.

Ms. Julie A. Fast
Mental Health Specialist

I developed ADD later in life. It’s now very severe. I always assumed it was a symptom of my bipolar depression, but even though my depression is better, the ADD is as strong as ever. I’m often too scattered to work. I can’t keep my mind on a project and find myself looking at blogs and watching TV instead of working. It’s like my head is a swivel chair. It’s very upsetting.

A note: ADHD means attention deficit hyperactive disorder. This is a childhood diagnosis and is rarely used for adults. Think of a child in a schoolroom who ‘bounces off the walls’ and can’t sit down and focus. This is ADHD. Adults rarely have the hyperactive part of the illness, which is why the diagnosis is ADD. I will use the term ADD to represent both diagnoses.

ADD medications such as Adderall and Ritalin are amphetamines also known as speed. It’s quite amazing that speed is able to calm a person down. The reason is that the brain of a person with ADD responds to the speed very differently than a brain without ADD. There is more technical information on this site as to why this happens.

Stories of abuse such as a college student taking Ritalin to stay up all night to study, keep many people from using the drugs for actual ADD. I know that I was hesitant at first. Not only because they can cause mania in bipolar disorder, but because I was told they’re very addictive. I was actually scared of them!

Here is what I’ve learned: 

  1. ADD meds are rarely addictive to those with the illness as the meds calm a person down instead of getting us high.
  2. Not everyone has an addictive personality and many can control the drugs very easily. Stimulants are controlled substances and trustworthy health care professionals monitor their use with blood tests. 
  3. ADD often causes more damage in a person’s life as it affects a person’s ability to study and work. This is certainly the case for me!
  4. Many believe that ADD is over diagnosed and other treatment methods should be used first. Of course this is true! Always try something natural first. For example, my book Get it Done When You’re Depressed helps a person treat ADD symptoms naturally. But if the ADD remains destructive, stimulants are a reasonable choice.

If you have ADD and have not been able to treat it naturally, think of meds. They can change your life.

In some rare cases, stimulant medications for ADHD, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine), can cause heart problems such as a heart attack. The problems seem to develop much more commonly in people who have a heart problem before they start taking the drugs. So before you start taking any medications, make sure your doctor knows about your other medical conditions. In fact, since there are important side effects from these medicines, do not request them without a thorough discussion with at least two docs (we believe a second opinion is warranted for any medical treatment whose effects or duration is greater than three days, and certainly more than 20 days).

Research indicates that two drugs commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Methylphenidate (Ritalin) and d-amphetamine (Dexedrine), may increase the rate of cigarette smoking. A study done at the University of Kentucky found that use of Methylphenidate increased the total number of cigarettes smoked, number of puffs, and carbon monoxide levels.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.