ADHD: Childhood to adulthood

Two-thirds of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are likely to have the condition into adulthood. Adults may be calmer but still have trouble with organization and impulsivity. Some ADHD medications that are used to treat ADHD in children can help control symptoms that linger into adulthood.

Stimulant and nonstimulant medications are used to treat ADHD. Stimulants are considered the first-line choice for treatment. They help adjust the levels of two chemical messengers in your brain called norepinephrine and dopamine.


Stimulants increase the amounts of norepinephrine and dopamine that are available to your brain. This allows you to increase your focus. It is thought that norepinephrine causes the main action and dopamine reinforces it.

Stimulants that can be used to treat adult ADHD include methylphenidate as well as amphetamine compounds, such as:

  • amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)


Atomoxetine (Strattera) is the first nonstimulant drug approved to treat ADHD in adults. It is a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, so it works to increase levels of norepinephrine only.

Although atomoxetine seems to be less effective than stimulants, it also seems to be less addictive. It is still effective and a good option if you can’t take stimulants. You only have to take it once per day, which also makes it convenient. It can be used for long-term treatment if necessary.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t officially approved antidepressants for adult ADHD. However, some doctors may prescribe antidepressants as off-label treatment for adults with ADHD that is complicated by other mental disorders.

Learn more: What’s the connection between ADHD and depression? »


Bupropion is also known by its brand name, Wellbutrin. It increases the level of the chemical messenger dopamine. It also slightly increases your level of norepinephrine. Your doctor may prescribe bupropion to treat your ADHD if you also have depression or an addiction to nicotine.

Guanfacine and clonidine

Guanfacine is sold under the brand name Tenex or Intuniv. Clonidine is sold as Catapres. They help regulate the part of your brain that controls your ability to pay attention. Your doctor may prescribe guanfacine or clonidine to treat your ADHD if you also have tics or anxiety. They both take several weeks to work.

Clonidine may reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity, but not inattention. It may be particularly helpful if you have Tourette’s syndrome.

Guanfacine has less of a sedating effect than clonidine. It lasts longer than clonidine and also helps you focus.

Regardless of what drug you and your doctor decide is best to treat your ADHD, it is important to know the side effects. Carefully go over any medication you’re prescribed with your doctor and pharmacist. Look over the labels and literature.

Stimulants can decrease appetite. They also can lead to headaches and sleeplessness.

Check the packaging of antidepressants. These drugs often include warnings about irritability, anxiety, insomnia, or mood changes.

Don’t use stimulant drugs and atomoxetine if you have:

  • structural heart problems
  • high blood pressure
  • heart failure
  • heart rhythm problems

Medication is only half the picture of treatment for adult ADHD. You must also initiate calm and focus by setting up your environment effectively. Computer programs can help you organize your daily schedule and contacts. Try designating specific spots to store your keys, wallet, and other items.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or talk therapy, may help you find ways to become better organized and to develop study, work, and social skills that help keep you more focused. A therapist can help you work on time management and ways to curb impulsive behavior.