Types of ADHD medications

At a glance

  • The two main categories of ADHD medications are stimulants and non-stimulants.

  • ADHD medications work by improving the way certain parts of the brain communicate with each other.

  • All classes of ADHD medication may cause some side effects.

If your child has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) you may be wondering about medications that treat ADHD (also known as ADD) in children.

There are several kinds of ADHD medications. They affect the way parts of the brain communicate with each other. This can help to increase alertness, improve , and reduce hyperactivity. While these medications are helpful for many kids with ADHD to varying degrees, they don’t seem to help much at all in some cases.

The two main categories of ADHD drugs are stimulants and non-stimulants. Those medications, as well as some lesser-used drugs, are briefly described here.

This information can help you prepare questions to ask your child’s doctor. Once your child has had a thorough evaluation for ADHD, you and the doctor can then decide which ADHD medication, if any, might be right for your child.

For more information, see a graphic that shows how ADHD medication works in the brain. And explore our comprehensive guide to ADHD medication.

Stimulant medications

Stimulants are the most-prescribed medications to treat ADHD in children. They’ve been used to treat ADHD since the 1960s. They are some of the most-researched of all types of drugs used with kids and adults. Studies show they’re usually safe when taken at the prescribed dose and work well in about 70 to 80 percent of cases.

Stimulant medications target a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) called dopamine, which plays a key role in motivation. It also helps to control movement and emotional responses.

The effects of some stimulants begin within about 30 minutes of taking the dose. Others take 60 to 90 minutes before they kick in.

The dose of a stimulant that will be effective for a person isn’t necessarily related to that person’s age, weight, or how severe the symptoms are. It’s more related to how sensitive that person’s body is to a particular medicine.

Stimulants can be shorter acting, meaning the pills are usually taken two or three times a day. Or they can be longer acting, meaning the pills are usually taken once a day.

The types of stimulants most commonly used to treat ADHD are listed below. The year next to it is when it was approved by the FDA. The medications followed by an asterisk are available in a generic form. Keep in mind that generic forms are labeled with the chemical name, not brand name.

Methylphenidate type

Shorter acting:

  • Ritalin (1955)*
  • Focalin (2001)*
  • Methylin Oral Solution (2002)*
  • Methylin (2003)*

Longer acting:

  • Ritalin-SR (1982)*
  • Metadate-ER (1999)*
  • Methylin-ER (2000)*
  • Concerta (2000)*
  • Metadate-CD (2001)*
  • Ritalin-LA (2002)*
  • Focalin-XR (2005)*
  • Daytrana Patch (2006)
  • Quillivant-XR (2012)
  • QuilliChew-ER (2015)
  • Aptensio-XR (2015)

Amphetamine type

Shorter acting:

  • Dexedrine (1976)*
  • Adderall (1960)*
  • ProCentra Oral Solution (2008)*
  • Evekeo (2012)
  • Zenzedi (2013)

Longer acting:

  • Dexedrine Spansule (1976)*
  • Adderall-XR (2001)*
  • Vyvanse (2007)
  • Dyanavel-XR (2015)

If your child takes ADHD medication, it’s important to work closely with the doctor to adjust or “fine-tune” the medication, dosage, or timing to best suit your child’s needs. For instance, some kids may need one long-acting dose followed by one shorter-acting one to get through the day and homework time.

Insurance companies often require people to use the generic forms of these medications. For many, the generic forms work as well as the branded version. However, the FDA has reported that two of the three generic versions of Concerta are not exactly the same as the branded product.

For kids who have trouble swallowing pills, some of these medications come in capsules that can be opened and sprinkled onto spoonfuls of food like applesauce, yogurt, or ice cream. Some come in liquid form. Medicated patches are also available for methylphenidate.

Non-stimulant medications

Non-stimulant medications can help in some cases of ADHD. They’re used most often with kids who don’t respond to stimulants or who experience side effects from them.

Unlike stimulants, non-stimulant medications work by increasing brain activity of norepinephrine. This is a neurotransmitter that, like dopamine, is linked to attention. Unlike stimulants, however, it may take four to six weeks to show results.

  • Strattera (2002)*
  • Tenex (1986)*
  • Intuniv (2009)*
  • Kapvay (2009)*

Antihypertensive medications are sometimes also used to manage ADHD. These medications are usually prescribed to treat high blood pressure in adults but have been found, in some cases, to decrease ADHD symptoms, too — specifically hyperactivity.

Side effects of ADHD medication

All classes of ADHD medication have possible side effects. These are often temporary and can be helped by reducing the dose or changing the timing of the dose. Stimulants can cause loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep, weight loss, and irritability or increased anxiety. Strattera can cause nausea, vomiting, and daytime sleepiness. Tenex, Intuniv, and Kapvay may cause sleepiness or dizziness.

While there was a fear that stimulants might stunt children’s growth, more recent research suggests that stimulants typically don’t affect how tall a child will ultimately be. For some kids, though, stimulants may cause a slight delay in the rate of growth.

With all of these drugs, side effects tend to occur only when the medication is active in the body. Very rare or serious side effects of ADHD medications may include heart problems in children with pre-existing heart defects. The FDA recommends that parents work with doctors to ensure their child has a thorough medical exam and health history review before taking ADHD medications.

Most side effects of ADHD medications are not serious. But any side effects should be reported to your child’s doctor. It’s crucial to work closely with the doctor or prescriber to find the medication and dosage that works best for your child. Keep an eye out for signs that your child’s ADHD medication needs fine-tuning, and talk to the doctor if you have any concerns.

You may also want to learn about the possibility of ADHD medication misuse, sharing, or abuse. Understanding the potential risks can help you keep your child safe.

Combination therapy: Medication and non-drug activities

Medications can help manage ADHD symptoms, but they’re not a “cure.” If a child stops taking the drugs, symptoms will return. Experts usually recommend a combination of medication and behavior therapy. This form of therapy teaches parents and teachers strategies like using rewards and consequences to help kids learn to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.

If you decide to have your child take ADHD medication, be prepared for some trial and error. It can take time to find the right medication or the right dosage. Be sure to watch your child. Pay attention to what your child says about how he or she feels when taking the medication. Stay in close touch with your child’s doctor and other clinicians to find the best solution for your child.

Read about how to approach the question of whether or not ADHD medication is right for your child. You can also connect with other parents in our online community to hear about their experience.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

Key takeaways

  • It’s important to work closely with your prescriber to find the right ADHD medication and dosage for your child.

  • Working with the prescriber to fine-tune your child’s medication can help manage possible side effects, such as loss of appetite and trouble sleeping.

  • ADHD medications can help manage symptoms, but they don’t cure ADHD.

About the author

About the author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.