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Drugs & Alcohol

ADHD Medicines

Managing ADHD With Medicine

Just about everyone has trouble concentrating or paying attention in class from time to time. But for teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these things can cause problems at school and in other areas of life. Medicines can help people with ADHD stay more focused and follow instructions better.

How Medicines Help

People with ADHD often act and think a little differently. They may get distracted easily. They may feel bored a lot, lose things, say or do whatever is on their mind without thinking, and interrupt when other people are talking.

Medicines can help people with ADHD concentrate and focus better and be less hyperactive and impulsive. ADHD medications work by increasing the levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help send messages between nerve cells in the brain.

There are two main kinds of ADHD medications: stimulants and non-stimulants.

  • Stimulants include Concerta, Ritalin LA, Focalin XR, Metadate CD, Daytrana, Adderall, and Vyvanse. They come as a liquid, pill, capsule, and even a patch. Stimulants work very quickly, and people with ADHD may see an improvement right away.
  • Non-stimulants work a little differently in the brain than stimulants. They may take longer to work, but they work better than stimulants for some people. Non-stimulants include atomoxetine (Strattera), extended release guanfacine (Intuniv), extended release clonidine (Kapvay), and certain antidepressants (such as Wellbutrin).

Doctors work closely with people who have ADHD to figure out which medicine will be most helpful. Because everyone’s different, doctors might try a couple of medicines before finding the one that works best.

Some teens need a combination of medicines. They might need both a stimulant and a non-stimulant at the same time to get the best results.

Are ADHD Medicines Safe?

Most experts agree that ADHD medicines are safe and work well when they are used under a psychiatrist’s or other doctor’s care. ADHD medications have helped teens with ADHD in all sorts of areas, even helping reduce things like substance abuse, injuries, and automobile accidents. ADHD medicines also can help people have better relationships at home and with friends.

But stimulants can cause some serious health problems if they’re not used properly. ADHD medicines can cause problems when:

  • the medicine is taken by someone who doesn’t need it
  • the person with ADHD takes more of the medicine than the doctor directed
  • the person takes the medicine more often than the doctor directed

What Happens if ADHD Medicines Are Abused?

When stimulant-type ADHD medications are used at doses that are too high (in other words, when they’re abused), a person can have problems like:

  • tremors (uncontrolled shaking)
  • changes in mood
  • confusion
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • delusions (when the mind thinks something is true when it really isn’t)
  • irregular breathing

Overdosing on ADHD medications also can cause these problems:

  • dangerously high blood pressure
  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • seizures
  • severe twitching or uncontrolled movements
  • sweating
  • dry mouth and eyes
  • vomiting

Are ADHD Medicines Addictive?

ADHD medications have the potential to become addictive if they aren’t used exactly as the doctor instructs. Because people who abuse ADHD medicines can get addicted to them, there are laws against sharing ADHD medications with other people. People with ADHD who take their medicines as they’re supposed to are not likely to get addicted to their medicine.

People used to worry that someone using medicines to treat ADHD might be more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. That hasn’t proved to be true. In fact, research has shown that people with ADHD who use their medicines properly may actually be less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs.

Researchers are constantly working to develop new medicines for ADHD. But taking medicine is just one part of an ADHD treatment plan. Treatment plans usually also include therapy and adjustments in school and at home to help people learn and build skills that will help them throughout life.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014