10 Drugs Commonly Prescribed for ADHD

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ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a neurobehavioral disorder. Symptoms usually start in childhood and include difficulty paying attention, overactivity, and acting without thinking. Most kids experience this to some degree. ADHD symptoms interfere with a child’s schoolwork and social life. This can affect a child’s quality of life and puts stress on family relationships.

About 3 to 5% of American children have ADHD and it tends to affect boys more than girls. But it isn’t just a childhood disorder. ADHD stays with children as they grow into adults and some people are adults when doctors finally diagnose ADHD. The symptoms are the same in adults and they still need treatment. When behavioral therapy and other strategies aren’t enough, doctors add medications to treat both children and adults.

ADHD Drug Classes and Side Effects

For most people, ADHD treatment combines behavioral therapy and medication. Medications can’t cure ADHD, but they can help manage the symptoms. To assist doctors in choosing treatment, they follow guidelines and recommendations from experts in the field.

The classes of ADHD drugs include:

  • Stimulants. These drugs are first-line treatment for ADHD because they are the most effective. They also take effect quickly. Experts believe stimulants work by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a role in thinking and attention. Possible side effects of this class include sleep problems, decreased appetite, growth problems, headaches, and irritability. These drugs also carry the risk of addiction.

  • Non-stimulants. Drugs in this class are second-line treatment. Doctors may switch to them or add them if stimulants don’t work or if they cause major side effects. They work on different chemicals in the brain, including norepinephrine, and take longer to help. Side effects depend on the specific drug, but fatigue and dizziness are common

  • Antidepressants. These drugs are also second-line treatment for ADHD. They treat depression by regulating the same brain chemicals involved in ADHD. As a result, they can sometimes help ADHD symptoms. Side effects vary depending on the antidepressant.

After starting treatment, your doctor will carefully monitor the dose of medication. The goal is to get the most benefit with the least amount of side effects. Your doctor will want to know about serious side effects, such as drastic personality changes or suicidal thoughts. Contact your doctor right away if ADHD medication seems to be causing more harm than it is helping.

Commonly Prescribed ADHD Medications

Within each class, your doctor has more choices to make. Some classes contain just a few drug options. Others, such as antidepressants, include many drugs. Finding the right choice for you may involve some trial and error. Ten drugs doctors commonly prescribe for ADHD include:

  1. Amitriptyline (Elavil) is an antidepressant. The dosing ranges from once a day up to 4 times a day. It belongs to a group of antidepressants called tricyclics. Drowsiness and sleepiness are very common with this group, so your doctor may recommend taking it at bedtime.

  2. Amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall, Adderall XR) is a stimulant combination. You take the immediate-release tablet twice a day in the morning, about 4 to 6 hours apart. The long-acting capsule is a once-daily medicine you take in the morning. Taking stimulants in the morning decreases the risk of sleep problems.

  3. Atomoxetine (Strattera) is a non-stimulant. The dosing is either once in the morning or twice daily—in the morning and late afternoon.

  4. Bupropion (Wellbutrin, Wellbutrin SR, Wellbutrin XL) is an antidepressant. You take the immediate-release tablet three times a day. Wellbutrin SR is a twice daily medication and Wellbutrin XL has once daily dosing.

  5. Clonidine (Kapvay) is a non-stimulant. It is an extended-release tablet you take once or twice a day. The immediate-release form (Catapres) treats high blood pressure.

  6. Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin, Focalin XR) is a stimulant. It comes as a tablet and a long-acting capsule. Like Adderall, you take the tablet twice a day in the morning, about four hours apart. You take the long-acting capsule once in the morning.

  7. Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) is a stimulant. It comes as a liquid, tablet, and long-acting capsule. Like other stimulants, you take it in the morning. For the liquid and tablet, you usually repeat the dose 4 to 6 hours later.

  8. Guanfacine (Intuniv) is a non-stimulant. It is a long-acting medicine you take once a day. You need to avoid high fat meals with Intuniv. Like clonidine, the immediate-release form of guanfacine (Tenex) treats high blood pressure.

  9. Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse) is a stimulant. It is also a drug you take once a day in the morning.

  10. Methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin, Daytrana, others) is a stimulant. Methylphenidate comes in a variety of dosage forms, including a patch, liquid, long-acting liquid, capsule, intermediate-acting tablet, long-acting capsule, long-acting tablet, and long-acting chewable tablet. This makes it extremely important to know exactly how and when to take your dosage form. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions.

It’s important to talk with your doctor about your ADHD medication. This is especially true if you experience side effects or have other problems with your medicine. You may be able to switch to a different medicine and get better results. Never stop taking ADHD medicine without checking with your doctor. Also, remember ADHD medication is just one part of an overall treatment plan. Continue working with your doctor on other strategies to manage symptoms.

Researchers continue to explore new treatments for ADHD. There are several drugs in various stages of clinical trials. Your doctor can give you information as new drugs to treat ADHD come to market.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Aug 14

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  9. Side Effects of ADHD Medication. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/side-effects-of-adhd-medication/

  10. Subcommittee on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder; Steering Committee on Quality Improvement and Management, Wolraich M, Brown L, Brown RT, et al. ADHD: clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2011 Nov;128(5):1007-22.

  11. Symphony Health Pharmaceutical Prescription Data. Accessed June 2017.

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