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6 Key Questions About ADHD Medications

6 Key Questions About ADHD Medications

Learn how stimulants, nonstimulants and antidepressant medications can help you beat ADHD symptoms.

If you've been diagnosed with ADHD or ADD, you're probably considering your treatment options. Medication is a key part of attention disorder treatment, so it's a good idea to know what drugs are available and how they work. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about common ADHD meds:

  • Will medication cure my ADHD? Current ADHD medications won't cure attention disorders, but when you take them as prescribed, they can help you manage your symptoms.
  • What medications are used to treat ADHD? Stimulants and nonstimulants are the most common medications for ADHD. These meds come in various forms, including pills, powder and patches. Stimulants are usually the first choice for ADHD treatment, but they can also have more side effects. The nonstimulants amantadine and atomoxetine have been used effectively in treating ADHD, as have the tricyclic antidepressants, bupropion, imipramine and nortriptyline.
  • How do stimulants for ADHD work? According to Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and a neuroscientist who has studied ADHD's effect on the brain, people with ADHD have abnormally low levels of dopamine, a chemical that's important for motivation and attention. Stimulants, she says, "increase dopamine in the brain" and temporarily replace the missing dopamine.
  • Which stimulant works best? All stimulants for ADHD have the same potential benefit, but because different medications and dosages affect people in different ways, it's difficult to predict who will benefit and who won't. To find out, you have to try the meds—under a doctor's care, of course. Effectiveness of ADHD medications must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Work with your doctor or psychiatrist to find the right med or combo of meds for you, and to adjust the dose so it works without side effects.
  • What about nonstimulants? How do they work? Nonstimulants are used less often to treat ADHD. They offer an alternative to people who can't take or don't like taking stimulants. RealAge expert Michael Roizen, MD, notes that many stimulants affect dopamine, while nonstimulants affect norepinephrine. According to Roizen, some nonstimulant meds increase the amount of norepinephrine in the part of your brain that controls attention and behavior, and others increase the number of norepinephrine receptors so that more norepinephrine can be received.
  • What about side effects? Experts agree that current stimulants and nonstimulants are safe and effective for ADHD treatment, but every medication has possible side effects. The most common side effects of stimulant medications are reduced appetite, weight loss and insomnia. Other side effects are less likely to occur. These include headaches, increased blood pressure and heart rate, tics or twitching, moodiness or feelings of irritability and anorexia. Side effects of the nonstimulant atomoxetine include constipation, dry mouth, dizziness and—in men—sexual side effects. In most cases, your doctor can help you reverse these side effects by changing your meds or adjusting the dose or time you take your medication.

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

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