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Adult ADHD and the Medications Used to Treat it

54_1.jpgAttention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly referred to as ADHD or ADD, is more than a disorder of childhood. Over the years, doctors have grown to appreciate the fact that many adults suffer from the associated attention and hyperactivity symptoms.

These can range from a mild nuisance to profound disruption in daily life. In fact, in some studies, it’s been reported that approximately half of children with ADHD will show signs of attention and impulse related problems later in life. This roughly translates to approximately eight million U. S. adults.

It’s important to keep in mind that ADHD does not always look the same over time. In children, inattentiveness often leads to being labeled as “easily distracted.” Resulting careless mistakes in schoolwork are a common occurrence.

Adults are more likely to be labeled as “forgetful” and always seem to misplace items like keys, wallets, and work papers. Regarding hyperactivity, children often are seen jumping from seat to seat, constantly squirming, or talking nonstop. Adults appear perpetually restless or nervous.

Below are seven signs that may point to adult ADHD, followed by a brief discussion of common medications.

  • You’re always late. Being late to a meeting every now and again isn’t cause for concern. Being late several times a week, every week, may be. Many adults with ADHD are chronically late for everything from doctor’s appointments to work. Unfortunately, these individuals are incorrectly labeled as unreliable and inconsiderate.
  • You’re forgetful. If you misplace your keys at least once a week, have been written up at work for missed deadlines, or find yourself wandering around the grocery store trying to remember what your spouse sent you there for in the first place, your absentmindedness may be more than a simple nuisance. It may be indicative of more significant attention and concentration issues.
  • You’re always bored. We all get bored. That’s nothing new and is of little concern. However, for someone with ADHD, boredom is a way of life. These individuals find it difficult to stay interested in work, while spending time with family at home, or hanging out with friends.
  • You have a hard time reading. Adults with ADHD often struggle with reading. It’s generally not related to a learning disability, but more a consequence of a wandering mind. These individuals have to read the same paragraph (or sentence) multiple times before the information sinks in. Unfortunately, many just give up and settle for watching TV.
  • You’re impulsive. Prematurely blurting out answers to questions in a meeting or making snap decisions about problems that require thoughtful solutions is a sign of impulsiveness. And as discussed above, impulsiveness is a common symptom of ADHD.
  • You’re disorganized. It’s hard to be successful at work or school if you’re not organized. That’s why many adults with ADHD have difficulty getting promoted or struggle at school. Depending on the level of disorganization, the negative impact can range from losing a job to failing out of school.
  • You procrastinate. Every one of us has waited until the last minute to finish a paper for school or presentation for work. However, for those with ADHD, missing deadlines is the norm. This is a result of the individual’s difficulty focusing on required tasks and adhering to a schedule.

Medications for Adult ADHD

There are two categories of medications used for adult ADHD: stimulants and non-stimulants. Stimulants are the most commonly used medications for ADHD in children and adults and include medications such as Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Dexedrine, and Vyvanse. Although most stimulant medications have formulations which allow once-daily dosing, dividing doses in the morning and at noon or early afternoon work best for some.

These medications work primarily by increasing the levels of two key brain chemicals responsible for attention and activity: dopamine and norepinephrine.

Generally considered safe in adults, they do come with side effects. The most common are headache, stomach upset, decreased appetite, and nervousness. In addition, since they are amphetamine derivatives, they carry an abuse potential and are regulated as controlled substances.

For those who can’t or don’t want to take a psychostimulant, there are several non-stimulant choices available. Strattera was the first non-stimulant medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for ADHD. It works by increasing the previously mentioned brain chemical norepinephrine. It does not pose the risk of abuse like the stimulants, but does come with similar side effects, such as increased blood pressure, headaches, and agitation.

Intuniv was the second non-stimulant medication approved by the FDA. Although only approved for use in children between the ages of 6 and 17, it is routinely used in adults. The generic form of the medication, guanfacine, was originally developed to treat high blood pressure. But for reasons not fully understood, the medication provides relief from reduced attention and increased motor activity. Similar to Strattera, it does not pose an abuse risk. Its most common side effects include dizziness, dry mouth, constipation, and stomach upset.

Although not common, ADHD in adults is by no means rare. If you think you may be one of the eight million adults suffering from the disorder, talk with your doctor. Effective treatments are available.

This article was adapted from a previous article written by Dr. Moore for his column “Kevlar for the Mind.”

Adult ADHD and the Medications Used to Treat it


Bret Moore, Psy.D.

Dr. Moore is a board-certified clinical psychologist in San Antonio, TX. His recent book Taking Control of Anxiety: Small Steps for Getting the Best of Worry, Stress, and Fear was developed as a self-help guide for people struggling with anxiety and for therapists to use with their patients.


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APA Reference
Moore, B. (2018). Adult ADHD and the Medications Used to Treat it. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/adult-adhd-and-the-medications-used-to-treat-it/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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