What medications treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Two main categories of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication are available -- stimulant and nonstimulant. You should discuss the risks and benefits of each of these treatment options for ADHD with your doctor.

  • Psychostimulants: These medications -- which include methylphenidate, dexmethylphenidate, and amphetamines -- are the most common kind of ADHD medication. They help ADHD sufferers feel calm by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. These medicines can also improve concentration and focus and decrease impulsivity. Stimulants are available in both short- and long-acting forms.
  • Norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors: This type of medication works by increasing brain levels of norepinephrine, a chemical that's in short supply in people who have ADHD. The increase in norepinephrine improves attention span and reduces impulsivity and hyperactivity.
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: These medications, which include tricyclic and other antidepressants, alter brain levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The result is less restlessness and agitation and fewer sleep problems.
  • Antihypertensives: Although they were not designed specifically to treat ADHD, certain blood pressure medications may improve cognitive function, decrease impulsivity, and help control other undesired behaviors in people who have ADHD -- possibly by increasing brain levels of norepinephrine.
There are many medications available to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but Adderall and Ritalin-both approved for children as young as age 3-are among the most widely known.

The majority of ADHD medications are considered to be stimulants, but Strattera is a major exception.

The stimulants, which are designed to help those with ADHD stay focused and maintain concentration, are effective for about 90 percent of those with the disorder. However, about one in 10 cases requires a different kind of medication-and finding the best one at the right dosage can take trial and error.

Like other medications, there is a potential for side effects which can include anxiety, insomnia or a lack of appetite. Children who take medication for ADHD often must continue doing so as teenagers and even as adults.
In general, stimulants are the drug of choice for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are nonstimulant options, most notably Straterra or Wellbutrin, but the effect size of the response (i.e. how much they help, not just whether or not they are better than placebo) seems considerably lower than for stimulants.

Within the stimulant family, there are two basic types. The amphetamine based drugs that work by blocking the recycling or "reuptake" and increasing the release of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, while the Ritalin or methylphenidate based drugs work by just blocking the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine. While some people do better with one family versus the other, most respond to either one. If an amphetamine based drug doesn't work well, we usually try a methylphenidate based drug, or vice versa.

Within each of these families are different tactics for making the drugs work longer. These tactics range from slow-to-digest pills to skin patches to a drug that must be broken down before it can work to a two phase timed release system. Your doctor can discuss and compare these if stimulants are considered for your ADHD.
There are several options for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with medication. Stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) have been used for decades. Nonstimulant medications—such as Wellbutrin (bupropion) or Straterra (atomoxetine)—are being used for some patients.
Diana K. Blythe, MD
There are a few different types of medications that treat ADHD. The most common are stimulant medications, like Ritalin or Adderall. Even though these two work in slightly different ways, they both serve to stimulate the brain which in kids with ADHD calms them and allows them to concentrate. Other types of medications are non-stimulants like Strattera, which has fewer of the side effects of the stimulants, but also fewer of the benefits. Talking to your pediatrician about which effects of ADHD is most bothersome to your child will help the pediatrician decide what medication, if any, to use. Do not be discouraged if the first medication does not work, or has unwanted side effects. The purpose of ADHD medication is to make your child's life better, not worse. Every child is different, so if the side effects outweigh the benefits, a change is needed.
Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Medicine
There are several classes of medications that treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The most common of these ADHD medications are stimulants. Stimulants sometimes have a bad reputation. However, if used properly, these medications can be highly beneficial and safe. Used improperly, stimulants can cause harm. However, most people tolerate these drugs well and notice few side effects from them. You may have to try different dosages or different types of stimulants before you find the winning combination for your ADHD.

If stimulants don't work well for you, ask your doctor about non-stimulant drugs to treat your ADHD. These are less common but may cause fewer side effects.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
There are several classes of medications that treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Most ADHD medications are stimulants. Ritalin and Adderall are the Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant of stimulants. Used properly, they are highly effective. Not to mention, they relieve symptoms fast.

Sometimes, non-stimulant drugs, like Atomoxetine (Strattera), antihypertensives, and some types of antidepressants can also treat your ADHD. Ask your doctor to find out what medication(s) will be best for you.
The most common type of medication used for treating ADHD is called a "stimulant." Although it may seem unusual to treat ADHD with a medication considered a stimulant, it actually has a calming effect on children with ADHD. Many types of stimulant medications are available. A few other ADHD medications are non-stimulants and work differently than stimulants. For many children, ADHD medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve their ability to focus, work, and learn. Medication also may improve physical coordination.

However, a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply for all children with ADHD. What works for one child might not work for another. One child might have side effects with a certain medication, while another child may not. Sometimes several different medications or dosages must be tried before finding one that works for a particular child. Any child taking medications must be monitored closely and carefully by caregivers and doctors.

Stimulant medications come in different forms, such as a pill, capsule, liquid, or skin patch. Some medications also come in short-acting, long-acting, or extended release varieties. In each of these varieties, the active ingredient is the same, but it is released differently in the body. Long-acting or extended release forms often allow a child to take the medication just once a day before school, so they don't have to make a daily trip to the school nurse for another dose. Parents and doctors should decide together which medication is best for the child and whether the child needs medication only for school hours or for evenings and weekends, too.

This answer is based on source information from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Psychostimulant medications, used for their ability to balance chemicals in the brain that prohibit the child from maintaining attention and controlling impulses, may be used to reduce the major characteristics of ADHD, which include inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.

There are four different psychostimulant medications that are commonly used to treat ADHD, including the following :
  • methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  • dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • a mixture of amphetamine salts (Adderall)
  • atomoxetine (Strattera) - a newer non-stimulant medication for ADHD
Psychostimulants have been used to treat childhood behavior disorders since the 1930s. They have been widely studied. Stimulants take effect in the body quickly, work for one to four hours, and then leave the body quickly. Recently many long acting stimulant medications have come on the market, lasting 8-9 hours, requiring one daily dosing. Doses of stimulant medications need to be timed to match the child's school schedule - to help the child pay attention for a longer period of time and improve classroom performance. The common side effects of stimulants may include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • insomnia decreased appetite
  • stomach aches
  • headaches
  • jitteriness
  • rebound activation (when the effect of the stimulant wears off hyperactive and impulsive behaviors may increase for a short period of time)
Most side effects of stimulant use are mild, decrease with regular use, and respond to dose changes. Always discuss potential side effects with your child's physician.

Antidepressant medications may also be administered for children and adolescents with ADHD to help improve attention while decreasing aggression, anxiety, and/or depression.

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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.