Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s most often diagnosed in childhood. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 5 percent of American children are believed to have ADHD.
Common symptoms of ADHD include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and an inability to focus or concentrate. Children may outgrow their ADHD symptoms. However, many adolescents and adults continue to experience the symptoms of ADHD. With treatment, children and adults alike can have a happy, well-adjusted life with ADHD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the goal of any ADHD medication is to reduce the symptoms. Certain medications can help a child with ADHD better focus. Together with behavioral therapy and counseling, medicine can make the symptoms of ADHD more manageable.
ADHD medicine is considered safe and effective. The risks are small, and the benefits are well documented.
Proper medical supervision is still important, however. Some children may develop more troublesome side effects than others. Many of these can be managed by working with your child’s doctor to alter dosage or switch the type of medication used. Many children will benefit from a combination of medicine and behavioral therapy, training, or counseling.
Several medicines are prescribed to treat ADHD symptoms. These include:
- nonstimulant atomoxetine (Strattera)
Psychostimulants, also called stimulants, are the most commonly prescribed treatment for ADHD.
The idea of giving an overactive child a stimulant may seem like a contradiction, but decades of research and use have shown that they are very effective. Stimulants have a calming effect on children who have ADHD, which is why they are used. They are often given in combination with other treatments with very successful results.
There are four classes of psychostimulants:
- methylphenidate (Ritalin)
- dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
- dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (Adderall XR)
- lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
Your child’s symptoms and personal health history will determine the type of drug a doctor prescribes. A doctor may need to try several of these before finding one that works.
Common side effects of ADHD medications
Common side effects of stimulants include decreased appetite, problems sleeping, upset stomach, or headache, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Your doctor may need to adjust your child’s dosage to relieve some of these side effects. Most of the side effects fade after several weeks of use. If side effects persist, ask your child’s doctor about trying a different medication or changing the form of medication.
Less common side effects of ADHD medications
More serious, but less common side effects can occur with ADHD medications. They include:
- Tics. Stimulant medication may cause children to develop repetitive movements or sounds. These movements and sounds are called tics.
- Heart attack, stroke, or sudden death. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that people with ADHD who have existing heart conditions may be more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or sudden death if they take stimulant medication.
- Additional psychiatric problems. Some people taking stimulant medications may develop psychiatric problems. These include hearing voices and seeing things that don’t exist. It’s important you talk with your child’s doctor about any family history of psychiatric problems.
- Suicidal thoughts. Some people may experience depression or develop suicidal thoughts. Report any unusual behaviors to your child’s doctor.
If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until help arrives.
- Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
- Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
There is no cure for ADHD. Medications only treat and help control symptoms. However, the right combination of medicine and therapy can help your child lead a productive life. It may take time to find the right dose and best medicine. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, regular monitoring and interaction with your child’s doctor actually helps your child receive the best treatment.
If you’re not ready to give your child medication, talk with your child’s doctor about behavioral therapy or psychotherapy. Both can be successful treatments for ADHD.
Your doctor can connect you with a therapist or psychiatrist who can help your child learn to cope with their ADHD symptoms.
Some children may benefit from group therapy sessions as well. Your doctor or your hospital’s health learning office can help you find a therapy session for your child and possibly even for you, the parent.
All medicines, including those used to treat the symptoms of ADHD, are only safe if they’re used correctly. That’s why it’s important you learn and teach your child to take only the medicine a doctor prescribes in the way the doctor instructs. Diverging from this plan may cause serious side effects.
Until your child is old enough to wisely handle their own medication, parents should administer the medicine every day. Work with your child’s school to set up a safe plan for taking medication should they need to take a dose while at school.
Treating ADHD is not a one-size-fits-all plan. Each child, based on their individual symptoms, may require different treatments. Some children will respond well to medicine alone. Others may need behavioral therapy to learn to control some of the symptoms.
By working with your child’s doctor, a team of healthcare professionals, and even staff at their school, you can find ways to wisely treat your child’s ADHD with or without medication.