Bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are conditions that affect many people. Some of the symptoms overlap. That can make it difficult to tell the difference between the two conditions without the help of a doctor. Because bipolar disorder can worsen over time, especially without proper treatment, it is important to receive an accurate diagnosis.


Bipolar disorder is best known for the mood swings it causes. People with bipolar disorder can move from manic or hypomanic highs to depressive lows ranging from a few times a year to as frequently as every couple of weeks. A manic episode needs to last at least 7 days to meet the diagnostic criteria, but it can be of any duration if the symptoms are severe enough to require hospitalization. If the person has a depressive episode, they must experience symptoms which meet the diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode, which lasts at least two weeks in duration. If the person has a hypomanic episode, the hypomanic symptoms need only last 4 days. You may feel on top of the world one week and down in the dumps the next. Some people with bipolar I disorder may not have depressive episodes.

People who have bipolar disorder have wide-ranging symptoms. During the depressive state, they might feel hopeless and deeply sad. They may have thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Mania produces totally opposite symptoms, but can be just as damaging. Individuals experiencing a manic episode might engage in risky financial and sexual behaviors, have feelings of inflated self-esteem, or use drugs and alcohol to excess.

ADHD is most often diagnosed during childhood. It is characterized by symptoms which may include difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. Boys tend to have higher rates of ADHD than girls. Diagnoses have been made as early as age two or three. There are a variety of symptoms that can express themselves uniquely in each individual, including:

  • trouble completing assignments or tasks
  • frequent daydreaming
  • frequent distraction and difficulty following directions
  • constant movement and squirming

It’s important to note that not all people, especially children, who display these symptoms have ADHD. Some are naturally more active or distractible than others. It’s when these behaviors interfere with life that doctors suspect the condition. People diagnosed with ADHD may also experience higher rates of coexisting conditions, including:

  • learning disabilities
  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • Tourette syndrome
  • oppositional defiant disorder

Bipolar disorder vs. ADHD

There are some similarities between the manic episodes of bipolar disorder and ADHD. These include:

  • an increase in energy or being "on the go"
  • being easily distracted
  • talking a lot
  • frequently interrupting others

One of the biggest differences between the two is that bipolar disorder affects mood, whereas ADHD affects behavior and attention. In addition, people with bipolar disorder cycle through different episodes of mania or hypomania, and depression. People with ADHD, on the other hand, experience chronic symptoms. They do not experience a cycling of their symptoms.

Both children and adults can have these disorders, but ADHD is typically diagnosed in younger individuals. Genetics may also play a role in developing either condition. You should share any related family history with your primary care doctor to help with diagnosis.

ADHD and bipolar disorder share certain symptoms, including:

  • impulsivity
  • inattention
  • hyperactivity
  • physical energy
  • behavioral and emotional liability

In the United States, ADHD affects a larger number of people. According to a study published in 2014, 4.4 percent of adults have been diagnosed with ADHD and only 1.4 percent of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

In addition, ADHD symptoms usually begin at a younger age than bipolar disorder symptoms.

Diagnosis and treatment

If you suspect that you or someone you love might have either of these conditions, speak with your doctor or get a referral to a psychiatrist (or if it is someone you love, encourage them to make an appointment with their doctor or get a referral to a psychiatrist). Your first appointment will likely involve information gathering so your doctor can learn more about you, what you are experiencing, your family medical history, and anything else that relates to your mental and physical health.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder or ADHD. Instead, your doctor will focus on treating your symptoms with the help of certain drugs and psychotherapy. Kids with ADHD who engage in treatment tend to get much better over time. Though the disorder can worsen during periods of stress, there are usually no psychotic episodes unless the person has a coexisting condition. People with bipolar disorder also do well with medicines and therapies, but their episodes can become more frequent and severe as the years go on.

When to speak with your doctor

Speak with your doctor or call 911 immediately if you or someone you love has thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Depression in bipolar disorder is particularly dangerous and difficult to spot if the person’s mood is cycling between extremes. Additionally, if you notice that any of the symptoms above are interfering with work, school, or relationships, it’s a good idea to tackle the root issues sooner rather than later.

Forget the stigma

It can be more than challenging when you or a loved one is experiencing signs and symptoms of either ADHD or bipolar disorder. You’re not alone. Mental health disorders affect approximately one in 17 individuals in America. Getting the help you need is the first step toward living your best life.