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ADHD Medicines

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD

What Is ADHD Medicine?

After a child 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 Kids Need ADHD Medicine?

Not every child with ADHD needs medicine. But medicine can help most kids with ADHD stay focused longer, listen better, and fidget less.

Kids also benefit from behavioral therapy to learn and practice skills like staying organized or waiting their turn without interrupting. Medicine isn't a shortcut — kids still need to work on mastering these skills. The benefit of medicine is it helps kids stay focused as they learn 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?

Kids and teens with ADHD can take different medicines. All ADHD medicines need a prescription. 

Kids and teens usually take ADHD medicines once or twice a day, depending on the medicine.

Stimulants 

These medicines include methylphenidate (brand names include Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, Focalin), and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse).

Stimulants work as soon as a child takes them. How long they last depends on the medicine:

  • Short-acting formulas last for about 4 hours.
  • Long-acting formulas stay in the body for about 10 or 12 hours. Long-acting stimulants can be helpful for older kids and teens who have a long school day and need the medicine to stay focused for homework or after-school activities.

Non-stimulants

These medicines include atomoxetine (Strattera), clonidine (Kapvay), and guanfacine (Intuniv). Non-stimulants can take up to a few weeks to start working. They work for 24 hours.

Before prescribing medicine, the health care team will ask if your child is taking any other medicines. That 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 have (or had) heart disease.

Illustration: medicine safety suggestions

Doctors usually start by prescribing a low dose of a stimulant medicine. If your child is taking a new ADHD medicine or dose, the doctor will want you to watch and see if the medicine helps. The doctor will change the dose and how often your child takes the medicine based on how much it helps and if your child is having side effects.

Kids 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 kids need to take more than one ADHD medicine to get the best result.

How Can Parents Help?

Let your child's doctor know if you notice any   from the medicine. 

You may need to go for several visits with the doctor. It might take weeks or months to find the right medicine and dose for your child. After that, the care team will want to see your child every 3 to 6 months.

Take your child to all of the follow-up visits. It's important that the care team checks your child's height, weight, and blood pressure. The care team will also look for side effects. They may adjust the medicine dose, especially as your child grows.

To help your child and prevent problems, always do these things when giving your child ADHD medicine:

  • Give the recommended dose.
  • Give 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.

Medicine is one part of treatment for ADHD. Treatment also includes therapy, parent training, and school support. Medicine works best when parents, teachers, and therapists help kids learn any social, emotional, and behavioral skills that are lagging because of ADHD.

Are There Any Risks?

Like any medication, 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 child's health care team will give you more information about possible side effects for the specific medicine they prescribe. If you notice anything that worries you, talk to your child's doctor right away.

Some parents don't like the idea of giving their child medicine for ADHD. But the right medicine can make a big difference for most kids. Talk to your child's doctor about your concerns. Ask questions. Your child's health care team can help you decide if trying a medicine is right for your child.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: March 2018