Medications for ADHD

Today, ADHD hinders the everyday activities of at least 3% and 5% of all children and adults. The medications for ADHD are not expected to cure this illness, as no cure is known to exist. But they do help control the symptoms and stabilize the behavior of the person taking them.

Without treatment, the child or adult suffering from this disorder is unable to function normally. As explained in the discussion of ADHD symptoms, ADHD hinders a person’s ability to focus on tasks and complete them, learn new things, pay attention, remember details, be patient, and consider things before they act or speak. The ADHD sufferer can also be “antsy” and unable to sit still, and often cannot wait their turn to do things.

The most effective treatment for ADHD is the combination of medications for ADHD being prescribed with behavioral and psychological therapies. No single medication or single therapeutic approach has been able to achieve control of ADHD symptoms.

How Do Medications for ADHD Help?

The child and adult ADHD medication being prescribed today consists mostly of stimulants, which on the surface sounds counterproductive. Stimulants however have proven to have a calming effect on upwards of 70-80% of children with ADHD. These stimulants improve attentiveness and self control within kids, whereas non stimulant ADHD meds will target hyperactivity and impulsive behavior. As an adult ADHD medication, stimulants have also proven effective.

It is believed that stimulants increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which facilitates the individual’s motivation, pleasure, and attention among other things.

ADHD medication

The stimulants have a relatively short-lived effect on kids. Depending on the child and the dosage, the stimulants can lose their effect within 4-8 hours, barely enough in many cases to “cover” the child through their school day.

Multiple doses of a prescribed stimulant medication may be necessary to combat ADHD, each day. Some meds are available in an extended release version, which can prolong their effectiveness beyond 8 hours.

The physician will prescribe stimulants and/or non stimulants based on the patterns of behavior that the patient is displaying.

Trial and Error

As is true with all medicines including those for other mental illnesses, ADHD meds will work differently for different people. As is true of adult ADHD medication, ADHD meds for children can also vary in terms of their effectiveness and their side effects, from one child to another.

The prescribing physician must usually follow a “trial and error” approach to determine the right medication and in the right dosage, especially when treating a new patient. Success is achieved when the physician is able to strike a balance between minimizing the patient’s symptoms and causing the least disruptive side effects.

Most Widely Prescribed ADHD Medications

Several classes of medication have proven to be the most effective for treatment of ADHD. Below is a table of the more conventional ADHD medications for children and adults alike. This information is also available on the website of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).


Generic Name
FDA Approved Age
  Adderall   amphetamine   3 and older
  Adderall XR   amphetamine (extended release)   6 and older
  Concerta   methylphenidate (long acting)   6 and older
  Daytrana   methylphenidate patch   6 and older
  Desoxyn   methamphetamine   6 and older
  Dexedrine   dextroamphetamine   3 and older
  Dextrostat   dextroamphetamine   3 and older
  Focalin   dexmethylphenidate   6 and older
  Focalin XR   dexmethylphenidate (extended release)   6 and older
  Metadate ER   methylphenidate (extended release)   6 and older
  Metadate CD   methylphenidate (extended release)   6 and older
  Methylin   methylphenidate (oral solution and
    chewable tablets)
  6 and older
  Ritalin   methylphenidate   6 and older
  Ritalin SR   methylphenidate (extended release)   6 and older
  Ritalin LA   methylphenidate (long-acting)   6 and older
  Strattera   atomoxetine   6 and older
  Vyvanse   lisdexamfetamine dimesylate   6 and older

All of the medications above are stimulants except for Strattera. Strattera was the first FDA approved medication for adult ADHD (2005). It is a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, used for other mood disorders beside ADHD.

Stimulants: Warnings and Side Effects

Stimulants should be avoided by people with moderate to severe high blood pressure (hypertension), glaucoma, hyperthyroidism, other types of heart disease or congestive heart failure, and those with a history of drug abuse.

Like virtually any other medication, stimulants used in treating ADHD can produce adverse side effects. These can include sleep difficulties and drowsiness, upset stomach, headaches, dizziness, reduced appetite, irritability, nervousness, and depression. In rarer instances, stimulant medication can also lead to nervous tics, withdrawal, depression, hallucinations, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. People with heart related problems must be extra cautious when taking stimulant medicines.

It should be noted that children taking medications must be monitored closely and carefully by caregivers and doctors. Parents of school aged children are reminded to keep the child’s teachers posted on any medication changes that the child will undergo in the course of treatment. Most teachers are experienced with children in their classes being on behavioral meds, and can provide valuable feedback to the parent or medical professionals on the effects of the child’s medication.

The symptoms of both ADHD and bipolar disorder can be very subtle or very strong, and they can first appear at almost any age. Neither illness is reserved for just young people or for grownups. Adult ADHD and Bipolar exists in every society just as it does within children and teenagers.

UPDATE - May 2011
Watson Pharmaceuticals announced that they are now marketing a new generic for Concerta, as they pursue approval of their own version of this medication.

Return from Medications for ADHD to the ADHD and Bipolar home page.