After someone is diagnosed with ADHD, doctors may prescribe medicine to treat it. Medicine doesn't cure ADHD. But it does help boost the ability to pay attention, slow down, and have more self-control.
Why Do People Need ADHD Medicine?
Not everyone with ADHD needs medicine. But medicine can help most people with ADHD stay focused longer, listen better, and fidget less.
People also benefit from therapy to learn and practice skills like staying organized, managing schoolwork, or dealing with stress. Medicine isn't a shortcut to mastering these skills. But it does help people stay focused on learning them.
How Does ADHD Medicine Work?
ADHD medicines improve attention by helping normal brain chemicals work better.
The medicines target two brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals affect a person's attention and concentration.
How Do People Take ADHD Medicine?
People with ADHD can take different medicines. All of them need a prescription, and most are taken by mouth. They're available as a tablet that is swallowed, chewed, or dissolved, or capsules that can be swallowed or opened and sprinkled on food. Some come in a liquid or a patch that is placed on the skin.
People usually take ADHD medicines once or twice a day, depending on the medicine.
These medicines include methylphenidate (brand names include Ritalin, Concerta, Focalin, Daytrana), and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse).
Stimulants work as soon as you take them. How long they last depends on the medicine:
Short-acting formulas last for about 3–6 hours.
Long-acting formulas stay in the body for up to 12 hours. They can be helpful for people who have a long school day and need the medicine to stay focused for homework or after-school activities.
These medicines include atomoxetine (Strattera), clonidine (Kapvay), guanfacine (Intuniv), and viloxazine (Quelbree). Non-stimulants can take up to a few weeks to start working. Then, they work for 24 hours.
Before prescribing medicine, the health care team will ask if you are taking any other medicines. This includes over-the-counter medicines and supplements (like vitamins or herbal medicines). The care team will also want to know about your family's medical history, especially if any family members had or have heart disease.
Doctors usually start by prescribing a low dose of a stimulant medicine. If you are taking a new ADHD medicine or dose, the doctor will want you and your parent to watch and see if the medicine helps.
People respond differently to medicines. If the first medicine doesn't seem to work, even at the highest dose, then a doctor may try a different medicine. Some people need to take more than one ADHD medicine to get the best result.
What Else Can I Do?
You and your parents should watch for any if you take a new ADHD medicine. Your doctor will adjust the dose and how often you take the medicine based on how much the medicine helps and if you have side effects.
You may need to go for several visits with the doctor over weeks or months to find the right medicine and dose. After that, the care team will want to see you every 3–6 months.
Going to all follow-up visits is important so the care team can check your height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate. The care team will also monitor side effects and adjust the medicine dose, as needed.
To prevent problems, always do these things when taking ADHD medicine:
Take the recommended dose.
Take each medicine at the right time.
Talk to a doctor before stopping the medicine or changing the dose.
Keep all medicines in a safe place where others can't get to them.
Don't give any of your medicine to anyone else.
Medicine is one part of treatment for ADHD. Treatment also can include therapy, parent support, and school support. Medicine works best when parents, teachers, and therapists help you learn any social, emotional, and behavioral skills that aren't easy because of ADHD.
Are There Any Risks?
Like any medicine, ADHD medicines can have side effects. Not everyone gets side effects, though.
The most common side effects are loss of appetite and trouble sleeping. Other ADHD medicine side effects include jitteriness, irritability, moodiness, headaches, stomachaches, fast heart rate, and high blood pressure.
Side effects usually happen in the first few days of starting a new medicine or taking a higher dose. They often go away on their own after a few days or weeks as the body adjusts to the medicine.
If a side effect doesn't go away, a doctor may decide to lower the dose or stop that medicine and try another. ADHD medicines only stay in the body for a few hours, so the side effects wear off as the medicine leaves the body.
Your health care team will give you more information about possible side effects for the medicine they prescribe. If you notice anything that worries you, tell your parent and talk to your doctor right away.
Some people don't like the idea of taking medicine for ADHD. But the right medicine can make a big difference. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns. Ask questions. Your health care team can help you and your parent decide if trying a medicine for ADHD is right for you.
Reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD and Larissa Hirsch, MD