Managing Medications: ADHD/ADD

Trying to sort through all the different medications available to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can seem overwhelming. To help with that, we’ve compiled this short guide that covers some of the most widely used medications, how they work, their side effects, and some first-person accounts from patients who’ve used the medications. Remember, side effects may go away within a few weeks of starting treatment, and it will likely take some trial and error to figure out which medications are best for each individual.

Amphetamines (stimulants)

Common medications: Adderall, Dexedrine, Dextrostat, Vyvanse

How they work: It is believed these medications balance neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing concentration, focus, and attention and decreasing fidgeting. Many are short-acting and require frequent dosing. Long-acting forms may increase sleep and appetite difficulties.

Potential side effects: Sleep issues, weight loss, irritability, loss of appetite, tics.

User experience: “I had some good results with Adderall, but side effects included anger and irritability, and my Tourette’s tics worsened and got bad enough that I had to come off of it.”

“With Adderall, I was jittery and had increased skin picking. It made me feel weird overall. I didn’t like it at all and requested to be taken off of it after a month. Vyvanse worked the best for me. I loved it! No side effects that I noticed. I had to go off it though because of insurance reasons.”

Methylphenidates (stimulants)

Common medications: Focalin, Methylin, Ritalin, Metadate, Concerta, Quillivant, Daytrana patch

How they work: By changing the number of certain natural substances in the brain, these medications help improve focus and concentration. Many are short-acting and require frequent dosing. Long-acting forms may increase sleep and appetite difficulties.

Potential side effects: Sleep issues, weight loss, irritability, loss of appetite, tics.

User experience: “Ritalin made me jittery and increased skin picking. There was no real effectiveness and I was unable to concentrate. Concerta was a little better, but also increased skin picking.”

“Ritalin is very effective! I can tell a huge difference in mental clarity and ability to focus about 40 minutes after taking it. My side effects are loss of appetite, nausea if I take it with food, a racing heart, occasional increased headaches, an increase in Tourette’s tics, and I find myself being irritable, anxious and nervous when coming off the dose. Coming off each day is the most discomfort I have from side effects.”

“Ritalin actually made me fall asleep.”


Common medications: Strattera and Intuniv

How they work: Similar to amphetamines, these also help with concentration, focus, attention and fidgeting. Both are taken every 24 hours.

Potential side effects: Dry mouth, upset stomach, sleep problems, fatigue, anxiety, dizziness, headache, abdominal pain and sleepiness.

User experience: “I’ve been on Strattera for about five weeks now. I still yawn a couple hours after the dose, but most of the initial sluggishness has gone away. I get light-headed when I get up, even if I only kneel for a moment. After the major initial side effects and adjustment, including sleepiness and feeling dazed, I haven’t really seen an improvement with my ADHD symptoms, but there has been a slight mood regulation.”
—Carmen Davis,* 30, recently diagnosed.

“I was on Straterra when I was younger and it didn’t work for me.”


Common medications: Wellbutrin, Tofranil, Pamelor, Aventyl, Norpramin

How they work: Like amphetamines and non-stimulants, these medications appear to balance neurotransmitters in the brain, improving concentration, focus, attention and fidgeting.

Potential side effects: Headaches, sleep issues, increased heart rate, fatigue, anxiety, upset stomach, dry mouth and dizziness.

User experience: “I felt like Wellbutrin worked. I got a lot done, but I was jittery all the time, so I had to go off of it.”

Blood pressure medications

Common medications: Clonidine, Catapres/Kapvay, Tenex

How they work: These medications relax blood vessels, increasing blood flow. Using them for ADHD is considered “off-label.”

Potential side effects: Dizziness, low blood pressure, irritability, dry mouth, fatigue and behavior problems.

User experience: “Clonidine helps a little for ADHD, but not nearly as much as stimulants can. However, when stimulants are too hard to take because of increased tics, something is better than nothing! My side effects are drowsiness, low energy, extreme dry mouth and nightmares. Clonidine helps alleviate some of the side effects from the Ritalin to give me more relief and fewer side effects. Using these two medications also gives me the option to easily adjust them as needed, since they are both in and out of my system in a matter of hours.”

Bottom line:

“Take your time, don’t rush. It may take time to find the right fit in medication and the right dosage,” says Carroll. “Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor if it’s not helping. Don’t be discouraged. Remember: You are not alone!”

“Finding the best treatment option for you specifically, whether it’s prescription medications, supplements, or behavior changes and life hacks, can be a long process,” adds Nichols. “Because we’re all different and react differently to medications, it takes a while to find the best option. It can be insanely stressful some days, but in the end, it’s worth it. Just stick with it and know that no matter what, you’re making an effort, and that’s a big step!”

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.


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