ADHD Medications for Adults and Children: ADD Stimulants, Nonstimulants & More
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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder that can cause above-normal levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. People with ADHD may also have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods of time. Both adults and children can have ADHD.
ADHD Medications for Adults and Children: Which Are Best?
The number of medications available to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) is overwhelming at best, and the process for selecting the best ADHD medication for you or your child, or deciding to medicate at all, is incredibly personal.
The ADHD medications prescribed to both children (as young as age 6) and adults are broadly categorized as
- Stimulants – considered the first-line treatment for ADHD. Amphetamines fall under this category, along with methylphenidate, the most widely used treatment for ADHD, and their derivatives.1
- Nonstimulants – prescribed to patients who don’t tolerate or see benefits from stimulant medications (up to 30 percent of patients do not respond to stimulants2). Three nonstimulants are approved to treat ADHD: atomoxetine, guanfacine, and clonidine. Nonstimulants, may also be prescribed for use alongside stimulants to treat symptoms that the latter do not alleviate.
Selecting the “best” ADHD medication can be a lengthy trial-and-error process of dosage and timing that is often related to a patient’s history, genetics, experienced side effects, and unique metabolism. ADHD medication is also often accompanied by behavioral therapy and other non-pharmacological treatments.
The most popular Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among ADDitude readers include (in alphabetical order):
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- Adderall XR (amphetamine)
- Concerta (methylphenidate)
- Dexedrine (amphetamine)
- Ritalin (methylphenidate)
Many parents and adults with ADHD remain confused about the distinctions and similarities between these and other treatment choices for ADHD. Our ADHD medication chart offers a side-by-side comparison of the most popular stimulants and nonstimulants in the treatment of ADHD.
How Do Stimulant Medications Treat ADHD?
ADHD is a neurological disorder, resulting from the deficiency of a neurotransmitter, or a group of neurotransmitters, in specific areas of the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells by bridging the synapse (or gap) between them.
One key neurotransmitter often deficient in individuals with ADHD is norepinephrine, along with its building blocks, dopa and dopamine. In theory, the primary stimulant medications used to treat ADHD stimulate specific cells within the brain to produce more of this deficient neurotransmitter. That’s why these medications are called stimulants — though it’s unknown exactly how they work to relieve ADHD symptoms.
The two main classes of stimulant medications, methylphenidate and dextro-amphetamine — both generic names — have been used since the 1930s. All brand-name stimulants are variations of these two medications. The ADHD medication Adderall for instance, is a modification of dextro-amphetamine. Methylphenidate, on the other hand comes in many forms (including a chewable tablet, a liquid, and a skin patch) with each variation having its own name.
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How is ADHD Medication Dosed?
The FDA requires, among other provisions, that a medication be labeled according to its
- Dosage Form/Route of Administration: Capsule, tablet, liquid, patch, etc. The patient information sheet inside the medication’s box or packaging states how much medication is in each unit of liquid; for example, 5 mg per 5 ml of liquid. Another methylphenidate product — Daytrana — is a patch that releases medication through the skin and into the bloodstream. Daytrana 30 mg contains about 30 mg of methylphenidate, and releases about 3.3 mg of it per hour.
- Dose Quantity/Strength: The specific amount of medication released into the blood over a given period of time. In other words, the number value for each product represents the total amount of the medication in the tablet/liquid/capsule/patch, not the amount in the blood at any one time. If methylphenidate, for example, is in the form of a four-hour tablet, and it releases 5 mg over that time, it is called methylphenidate 5 mg. A capsule of Adderall, on the other hand, that releases 10 mg immediately and 10 mg four hours later is called Adderall XR 20.
- Release mechanism/Duration of Administration (released immediately or over an extended period of time): The length of time a medication will remain available and active. Stimulants release medications over many time frames, including an hour, four hours, or over eight or 12 hours. Here’s an example: The ADHD medication Ritalin is a tablet that is released immediately into the bloodstream and works for four hours. Ritalin LA, on the other hand, is a capsule that releases over a longer period of time and works for eight hours. Different names, even though both contain the same medicine — methylphenidate.
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