What is the best medication for ADHD?
Updated: Oct 26
There are lots of ADHD medications- this article will help you identify which medications are effective for ADHD and explain how ADHD medications like Adderall work.
Medication and ADHD
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be very effectively treated in people of all ages. Some of the most common questions people have are: will ADHD medication work for me? Is ADHD medication dangerous (especially amongst kids)? Is ADHD medication addictive? What are ADHD medication side effects? What are the names of ADHD medications? I’ll try to answer these below but keep in mind I am not a physician and this information is in no way intended to be prescriptive. If you have an ADHD diagnosis already and are interested in medication I would suggest you reach out to the psychiatrist or medical provider who gave you the diagnosis and they can conduct a more detailed evaluation to see if medication would be appropriate for you. The Cleveland Clinic also has a great resource about medication here.
"When I first took ADHD medications it was just like the first time I got glasses…the world came into focus. I just wish I could have had them forty years ago. My life would be very different."- Anonymous
What are the names of ADHD medications?
You’ve probably heard of some of the most common brand names of ADHD medication: Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta. However, there are many, many more effective medications for ADHD. In addition to Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta, some other common medications for ADHD include: Dexedrine, Focalin, Vyvanse, Daytrana, Strattera, and Intuniv. These fall into roughly two categories: stimulants or non-stimulants, and can be active in the short-term (3-6 hours), medium-term (6-8 hours), or long-term (8-24 hours). What medication your doctor chooses for you may depend on factors like how long you need the medication to stay in your system (is it just for a basketball game or do you need it for a 12-hour work shift?) and how likely you are to remember to take your medication. Ironically, one of the prominent features of ADHD is forgetfulness, and all too often people with ADHD forget to take their medication. In these cases, your doctor might prefer to prescribe a longer-acting medication, so you won’t have to remember to take it multiple times per day, and/or during work or school hours.
What are common side effects of ADHD medication? Will Adderall work for me?
Oftentimes ADHD medication involves a little trial and error between you and your psychiatrist. One medication may work well for you but have uncomfortable side effects, in which case you need to decide together if the side effects are worth the benefits. It is possible that if you switch categories of medication (stimulant to non-stimulant or amphetamine to methylphenidate) you can find a medication that works well and has little to no side effects. Side effects can be mild to severe and you should discuss these with your physician ahead of time and make sure to keep an eye out for these as you take these (or any) medications. Side effects of ADHD may include (but are not limited to): loss of appetite, heart-related problems, insomnia, increased blood pressure, anxiety and depression, changes in libido or sex drive, and headaches.
ADHD medication and gender
One aspect of medication that is starting to emerge in research is that ADHD medication may have a differential impact on males than females. Until recently most medication research was done on males (as women were and still are underdiagnosed with ADHD- see my article on this here), and it’s not necessarily clear if side effects for women are different from side effects for men. In addition, women may require different dosages of ADHD medication than men. If you’d like to read more, here’s a great article on sex differences in ADHD pharmacotherapy.
Is ADHD medication dangerous?
Many people are hesitant to take ADHD medication because they worry it is dangerous, particularly if the patient is a child. Some of the side effects mentioned above can indeed be severe, which is why you should only take them under supervision of qualified medical personnel. Luckily serious side effects of ADHD medication are relatively rare and in most cases it is safe, even with children. ADHD medication has been steadily researched since the 1930s, and while there is evidence to suggest that children are at risk for side effects, most of these side effects are considered “non-severe.”
"I was so reluctant to try meds for my son. I thought it would sedate him, make him a zombie, stifle his creativity. But I got to a point where I felt his ADHD would destroy our family, and we turned to medication. It turned out to be a wonderful decision. His grades turned around completely (top of his class), and he began to feel intelligent and capable. He could focus enough to express his fabulous ideas. - Tamsin
Is ADHD medication addictive?
Many ADHD medications fall under the category of a Schedule II substance. Stimulant medication can be addictive, which is why it is prescribed only after careful consideration. If you have a history of substance abuse, your physician may start with a trial of non-stimulant ADHD medication. It’s important not to share your ADHD medication with anyone. A phenomenon we’re seeing more and more often in college-aged kids (see my article on ADHD and College-Aged Adults) is that people in their teens and early twenties have been known to sell or swap their ADHD medication in a “Black Market." Not only is this incredibly dangerous, it can lead to severe legal penalties; misdemeanor offenses often result in probation, fines, and short prison sentences, whereas felony convictions may lead to upwards of 10 years imprisonment.