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What are the Different Types of ADHD Medication?

By Koren Allen
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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ADHD medication is generally divided into two broad categories: stimulant and non-stimulant types. Medication does not cure ADHD, but it can help manage the symptoms. Each person responds to ADHD medication differently, so you may need to try more than one medication before you find one that works for you. Medication is generally one part of your treatment plan, combined with some form of cognitive therapy or specialized ADHD coaching sessions. You will work together with your doctor to determine the right medication for your specific needs.

Stimulant medications are the most common and widely used drugs for treating ADHD. Most stimulant medications are a form of methylphenidate drugs; these include Ritalin®, Focalin®, Concerta®, and Metadate®. Amphetamines commonly used include Adderall® and Dexedrine®. Both of these types of medication are thought to regulate levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine in ADHD patients. These brain chemicals are believed to play a role in pleasure, motivation, and attention span.

Short-acting drugs have the advantage of getting into your body quickly and providing immediate relief of symptoms. They also leave your body quickly, so they may have to be taken several times a day. The advantage of short-acting medication is that it allows a person with ADHD to tailor their medication to fit their needs and lifestyle. For instance, children with ADHD often take stimulant medication during school hours, but not during after-school play or sports activities. Short-acting drugs can also be discontinued during summer months, if this is indicated for the child.

Time-released stimulant medications are only taken once or occasionally twice a day. This is a huge advantage for adult ADHD patients who have trouble remembering their medications and don't have someone around to remind them. They provide better all-day coverage, avoiding some of the behavioral highs and lows that are sometimes associated with short-acting medication. However, because they enter your body more slowly, they may not provide the immediate symptom relief that short-acting medications do.

In the U.S., the only non-stimulant ADHD medication that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration is called Strattera®. Strattera® is a long-acting medication that is usually taken once or twice a day. It is not a controlled substance, so it is easier to prescribe and refill than stimulant medications. Strattera® is also thought to have some antidepressant characteristics, so it may be particularly effective for patients who have both ADHD and depression. It is most commonly used in adults, but can be prescribed for children as young as six years old.

In some cases when neither stimulant nor non-stimulant medications are effective, some doctors may prescribe other medications to help control symptoms. One of the most common is Wellbutrin®, a non-narcotic antidepressant that is thought to work on the same brain chemicals as the ADHD medications do. Drugs used to treat other conditions, such as high blood pressure or depression, may be effective in relieving some of the ADHD symptoms as well, particularly anxiety and impulsiveness. Some insurance companies may not cover these medications if your only diagnosis is ADHD, so be sure and check with your doctor and insurance provider, or request a less expensive generic medication.

As with any drug, there may be side effects associated with ADHD medication. Common side effects of stimulant medications include headache, nausea, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and a feeling of being jittery. Non-stimulant medications may also cause headache and nausea, as well as sleepiness and irritability. Both medications may cause unexpected mood changes in some people, including an increase in suicidal thoughts. When starting these or any new medications, always be vigilant of side effects and call your doctor with any concerns you may have.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon205713 — On Aug 13, 2011

I have a seven year old child who has the characteristics of ADHD. She's up and down rarely in the week, but on most weekends she's up and down. We noticed that she has some kind of ADHD when she started preschool. We are taking her to the neurologist in about a week and a half.

By Bhutan — On Jan 17, 2011

Sunny27-There is a national support group called CHADD that offers chapters all over the country and often has outings for families and children with this condition.

They also teach you ways of treating ADHD without medication and really allow you to feel that you are not alone in your frustrations and feelings of helplessness.

This is a manageable condition and many people that have this condition as kids grow up to be successful adults.

Sometimes channeling the excessive energy into a sport that a child can excel in can really be a confidence booster for these kids.

That is what happened to Michael Phelps. His mother got him into swimming so that he can be forced to concentrate on something and it worked because he won eight gold medals.

By Sunny27 — On Jan 16, 2011

Oasis11-Cognitive behavior therapy also allows these children to learn social skills so that they can have more satisfying peer relationships.

In addition, many parents treating ADHD without medication look for a nutritionist that can provide guidance as to what foods to avoid with this condition.

For example, sugary foods, caffeinated drinks, and foods with preservatives and food dye are all said to have adverse effects on children with ADHD.

It is best when you suspect that your child may have this disorder you go to your local children’s hospital because they tend to have a more comprehensive analysis for you and you will feel more comfortable with the treatment options.

Your child will need to be observed by a psychologist and a pediatric neurologist in order to confirm the diagnosis.

By oasis11 — On Jan 15, 2011

GreenWeaver-Other parents feel that they look at controlling ADHD without medication because they fear that the medication might have negative long term results and they do not like the idea of their children relying on a substance on order to function properly.

Many parents will seek ADHD treatment without medication because they feel that children are receiving too much medication as it is and do not feel that the medication is actually needed.

A treatment for ADHD without medication is cognitive behavior therapy. Here the children with the help of a therapist learn behavior modification techniques that slowly help the child understand how to control his impulses.

For example, the counselor might have the child recall a time when they felt poorly because of the situation and then they talk about it so that they child starts to understand what went wrong in that situation.

This form of therapy involves a lot of role playing so that the child can mentally rehearse situations so that he will be better prepared when the situation happens again.

By GreenWeaver — On Jan 15, 2011

Attention deficit disorder is on the rise and many parents that have children afflicted with attention deficit face the dilemma regarding treating the condition with medication or managing ADHD without medication.

The medication allows for consistency in academic work that may build the child’s confidence. Often children with ADHD have trouble finishing their assignments and tests at school and subsequently receive poor grades.

This disorder impacts the child’s learning ability so much that they often fall behind and develop poor self esteem and some start to associate school as a source abject failure because in addition to the academic problems, this disorder also makes children impulsive and many children with this condition have trouble making friends because their exuberant personality really is too much for other children to take and therefore they get rejected.

So school is a real source of pain for these children this is why many parent seek treatment in the form of medication because they really need a deep intervention to help their child.

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