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Stimulants affect how the brain controls
impulses and regulates behavior and attention. They do this by influencing the
availability of certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in the
Stimulants are considered for people
with moderate to severe
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who
have difficulty in at least two different settings, such as school and
home.1 Stimulant medicines with amphetamine, such as
Adderall, that are used for the treatment of ADHD are approved by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) for children age 3 and older. Stimulant medicines
with methylphenidate, such as Ritalin, are approved for children age 6 and
older. A doctor may prescribe methylphenidate for a child under age 6 based on the
child's specific needs.
Stimulants may be used in people who have ADHD and who also have
mood disorders, such as depression. The priority of which condition is treated
first usually depends on which is thought to be the main disorder.
Stimulants may be used in adults when antidepressants fail to control
ADHD symptoms. If antidepressants alone are not controlling symptoms,
stimulants may be added.
Stimulants may be the most
effective treatment for the symptoms of ADHD:
hyperactivity. These medicines can suddenly and
dramatically improve behavior. But some people need to try different types and
dosages of stimulants to find the one that works best for them. If treatment
with a stimulant is successful, it usually helps control symptoms over time
without increasing the dosage.1
70 out of 100 people who have ADHD, stimulant medicines improve symptoms.1
Children often become calmer,
more organized, and less stubborn. Examples of behaviors that improve
Although stimulants may also improve social adjustment or
academic performance for some children, they have not been shown to sustain
this benefit over the long-term.
The most common (affecting
about 50 out of 100 people) side effects of stimulants are usually related to the dose and go away
after the first 2 to 3 weeks on the medicine. Persistent side effects can
usually be relieved by changing the dosage level, changing when the medicine is
given, or trying a different type of stimulant. The most common side effects
Other side effects are also usually temporary or go away
with dosage adjustment. These include:
Long-term use of stimulant medicine appears to be safe and effective.2
Stimulant medicines may be related to slower growth in children, especially in the first year of taking the medicine. But most children seem to catch up in height and weight by adulthood. Your doctor will keep track your child's growth and watch for problems.2
See Drug Reference for a full
list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)
Most of the medicines used to treat ADHD come with a U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) warning about possible heart-related or
mental problems. Before starting a medicine for ADHD, tell your doctor if your
child or you have any heart problems, heart defects, or mental health
Methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine usually take
effect within 1 hour after the first dose. Talk to your doctor about the best
time to take the medicine.
Treatment with stimulants may be
continued as long as the symptoms are present, the medicine continues to work,
and there are no significant side effects.
People with ADHD do not
tend to abuse stimulant medicine and very rarely develop dependence on (addiction to)
on the medicine. Also, there is no evidence that people with ADHD who
take stimulants are at greater risk for abusing other drugs. In fact, people
who take stimulants for ADHD may be less likely to abuse drugs.3
Some people buy or steal stimulant medicines.
Parents need to be certain that their child takes his or her medicine and does
not share it with or sell it to anyone else. If this is a concern, talk to your
doctor about your child taking a medicine in a safer form.
When stimulants are used to treat ADHD and a dose is missed, do not increase doses to
catch up. If several doses are missed, begin taking the medicine again on the
Tips for giving methylphenidate or dextroamphetamine to
Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
(2002). Practice parameter for the use of stimulant medications in the
treatment of children, adolescents, and adults. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41(2, Suppl):
Greenhill LL, Hechtman LI (2009). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3560–3572. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Upadhyaya HP (2008). Substance use disorders in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Implications for treatment and the role of the primary care physician. Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 10(3): 211–221.
Current as of:
March 12, 2014
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
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