Medication for Adult ADHD: Understanding Your Options

Meds can’t cure ADHD, but they can sure make an impact on your quality of life.

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If you’ve been dealing with ADHD for years and have only just been diagnosed, you might be eager to address your symptoms now that you know what’s causing them. It’s important to remember that treatment for adult ADHD takes time, and no therapy session or medication will banish ADHD overnight.

But they will help: Studies have shown medication for ADHD has been effective in improving academic and work performance, reducing crime and risky behavior, strengthening emotional regulation, and easing symptoms, according to a 2017 study in Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety. There’s good reason to seek treatment—and stick to it.

Who Needs Medication for Adult ADHD?

ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, involves an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain, according to Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. That’s why adult-onset ADHD is a myth; the symptoms caused by the neurotransmitter imbalance have likely been present since childhood.

Neurotransmitters are molecules in the brain that help neurons communicate between each other, according to the National Resource Center on ADHD. The two neurotransmitters at play in ADHD are norepinephrine and dopamine, which appear affect attentional and behavioral symptoms of ADHD.

Not all adults with ADHD will need medication to manage their symptoms. For some, learning executive functioning skills or organization strategies may be enough. For example, here are skills for staying organized with adult ADHD.

For other adults with ADHD, medication can be beneficial and even essential. “There are other times where it’s really important to regulate that biochemical imbalance with medications,” says Dr. Samuels. When you are diagnosed with adult ADHD, you and your doctor can discuss your options based on your personal needs and concerns.

What Are the Types of Medication for Adult ADHD?

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

  • Stimulants include methylphenidate and amphetamines, which are more commonly prescribed. “[Stimulants] are medications that work on the dopamine and norepinephrine imbalance in the brain,” says Dr. Samuels.   

  • Non-stimulants include atomoxetine, bupropion, and tricyclic antidepressants. These focus on other neurotransmitters in the brain that help support dopamine and norepinephrine function, according to Dr. Samuels.

Medications for adult ADHD can also be classified as short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. Short-acting medications for ADHD are effective for three to five hours, and thus need to be taken more frequently; long-acting medications are effective for up to 12 hours. Short-acting drugs can be useful for patients who only want to target specific parts of the day, as opposed to all-day coverage, according to UpToDate from Wolters Kluwer.

What Are the Side Effects of ADHD Medications?

The most common side effects patients report while taking ADHD medications include a decrease in appetite, difficulty sleeping, and an increase in anxiety, according to Dr. Samuels.

To avoid or limit intolerable side effects, finding the correct ADHD medication dosage is key. Doctors usually start with the lowest dose and will increase every three to seven days until the appropriate results are achieved. Each person responds to a certain drug differently, and you might need to switch to a different medication altogether if the first drug isn’t improving your quality of life.

How Effective Are Medications for Adult ADHD?

“What’s really great about many of the medications for ADHD is that they can work almost immediately,” says Dr. Samuels, “as in, almost the first day that you take the medications.” This is especially true of the stimulants (whereas the non-stimulates may take up to a month to see results).

“You’ll notice that you’re more efficient, that you’re more able to focus and get that task done that used to take you three hours,” says Dr. Samuels. “You might be able to get it done in one hour. And you’ll notice a really significant change.”

Medication for ADHD doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. Sometimes, a period of medication treatment can help you build and strengthen new habits, until they become second nature. This can allow you to transition off the medication without losing those skills.

“It might be easier another time later on to do that very same task even without the medication because you’ve actually experienced that more efficient way of getting it done,” says Dr. Samuels.