Many people, especially children, will sometimes have trouble paying attention, sitting still or being patient. But with ADHD, these behaviors are more pronounced and can impact life at home, school and work, relationships and day-to-day functioning. ADHD diagnosis and treatment can help.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and other trained health care professionals such as your primary care doctor or pediatrician can diagnose ADHD. You can also get help from your local early intervention agency for children under age 3 and your public school for children aged 3 and older.
To start, your doctor or your child’s doctor will want to determine if any other health problems could be causing symptoms. Depression, anxiety, stress, difficulty sleeping, learning disabilities, head injuries, seizure disorders, substance use or thyroid conditions can cause similar issues. You or your child may need hearing and vision testing to make sure there aren’t any problems in those areas. Blood tests and imaging tests aren’t used to diagnose ADHD, but they could be used to rule out other conditions.
Checklists for rating symptoms can be used to diagnose ADHD. Older children, teens and adults can complete these checklists on their own. Your doctor or mental health professional may also ask that someone close to the person with ADHD, such as a parent, partner or teacher, complete a checklist. You may also need neuropsychological or psychoeducational testing to help determine the type (or diagnostic classification) of ADHD.
Providers use the guidelines found in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to help make sure you get diagnosed properly. Generally, individuals with ADHD have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity that have lasted for at least six months. These symptoms have to be present before age 12 and in at least two settings (such as home and school or work), interfere with functioning, and not be attributed to another mental health problem.
There’s no cure for ADHD, and it’s often a condition that lasts a lifetime. But treating ADHD can help get symptoms under control so people with it can function better. Untreated, it can be challenging for people with ADHD to succeed.
Medication, behavioral therapy and education all can help, and usually, they work best in combination. For children aged 4 to 5, experts usually recommend trying behavioral therapy first, before medication.
There are two main categories of medication for ADHD—stimulant and non-stimulant. You or your child might need to try different dosages or medications to find what works best.
Stimulant medications contain methylphenidate or amphetamine and help increase two brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine, which are vital in thinking and paying attention. They tend to start working right away.
Stimulant medications include:
These stimulants are considered safe when taken as directed, under the supervision of a health care professional. They are unlikely to lead to dependence when used as directed. Side effects can include insomnia, slow growth, headaches, anxiety, loss of appetite, weight loss, increased blood pressure and increased heart rate. If you experience these side effects, they can usually be managed with the help of your doctor.
Non-stimulant medications such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Intuniv) may take longer than stimulants before you see a response. Your doctor may recommend this type of medication if a stimulant medication doesn’t work for you or is causing troublesome side effects, or in combination with a stimulant to get better control of your symptoms.
Side effects can include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dry mouth, insomnia, nausea, constipation, decreased appetite, dizziness, decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, urinary difficulty and rarely, liver failure.
Antidepressants such as bupropion aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating ADHD. But sometimes, they’re prescribed as an alternative if you experience side effects from a stimulant. They may also be prescribed in combination with a stimulant, particularly if you have depression, anxiety disorder or another mood disorder as well as ADHD.
The use of supplements for treating ADHD is a topic that has gained attention, but it's important to note that research in this area is limited and the effectiveness of supplements for ADHD management is not well-established. It's important to note that supplements should not replace evidence-based treatments for ADHD, such as behavioral therapy and medication, especially for moderate to severe cases. If considering the use of supplements, it is essential to consult with a health care professional who can provide personalized advice and guidance based on the individual's specific needs and medical history.
Health care professionals can help people with ADHD and their families cope, function and manage their symptoms more effectively.
While lifestyle changes won’t treat ADHD, they can help make it easier for you or your child to manage symptoms. You can try:
Whatever treatment methods you try, you’ll want to stay in close contact with your doctor to see how you’re managing your symptoms and decide if you need to make any changes. Not every treatment works for every person with ADHD and sometimes, a combination of treatments is best.