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ADHD medications: The Optum Perks Guide

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Medication plays a big role in managing ADHD. But how it’s treated depends on your age, your symptoms and what side effects you experience.

Hallie Levine

By Hallie Levine

Table of Contents

  1. Does my child with ADHD need to be on medication?
  2. What’s the best medication for kids with ADHD?
  3. What side effects can children have on ADHD medication?
  4. Are ADHD treatments gateway medications to drug and alcohol abuse?
  5. What non-stimulant medication options are there for children?
  6. When can my child with ADHD stop taking their medication?
  7. Do adults with ADHD need medication?
  8. What’s the best medication to treat adult ADHD?
  9. Are there adults with ADHD who shouldn’t take stimulant medication?
  10. How do I figure out the best dose for me?

Adderall® (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine). Ritalin® (methylphenidate). Strattera® (Atomoxetine). Concerta® (Methylphenidate). It’s tough enough to process a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But figuring out the right medication can seem even more overwhelming.

That said, it’s important to go through the process. “Whatever your age, if you have ADHD, finding the right treatment can be a game changer,” says Lenard A. Adler, MD. He’s a psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry and director of the Adult ADHD Program at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “The good news is that there are enough different medications out there that, with some trial and error, you can find the right one for you.”

Here are some of the most common questions about ADHD medication, whether you have a child with ADHD or struggle with the condition yourself. (Buying medications for the whole family can add up fast. Use the free Optum Perks prescription discount card to see how much you could save.)

Does my child with ADHD need to be on medication?

If you’re a parent, you may wonder if it’s necessary to give your child prescription medications for ADHD. This will depend greatly on your child’s age and their symptoms. And it will also depend on your access to effective behavior therapy and other interventions, such as support at school.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) splits up its treatment recommendations by age. For example, the AAP recommends that kids 4 to 6 with ADHD first try behavior therapy before medication. Then it recommends a combination of the 2 for grade-school kids and teens.

Medication can help a child:

  • Have better relationships with their parents, teachers, siblings and friends
  • Perform better in school
  • Follow rules both at school and at home

Most of the youth with ADHD are on medication. About 3 in 4 kids with ADHD receive some kind of treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 62% take prescription medication.

If you don’t want your child with ADHD to take prescription medication, you need to work carefully with your health care provider. You can use behavioral treatments and counseling, but they may not work as well without medication.

Recommended reading: How parents can get kids with ADHD prepared to start school.

What’s the best medication for kids with ADHD?

Stimulants are the first-line treatment. They work by improving communication between your child’s brain cells. They also increase certain brain chemicals such as dopamine that help your child pay attention.

The 2 most common stimulants are:

  • Methylphenidate (examples: Concerta®, Ritalin®, Focalin®). It’s available as a tablet, a capsule and a (banana) flavored liquid. It also comes in both short-acting and long-acting formulas. There’s also a patch (Daytrana®) that your child can wear for up to 9 hours a day.
  • Amphetamine (Adderall®, Evekeo®, Vyvanse®, Mydayis®). These are also available in long- and short-acting formulas. As with methylphenidates, they come in tablet and liquid form, too.

You’ll have to work closely with your child’s doctor to find the right dose. Once you do, you’ll see its effects on your child within 30 to 60 minutes.

Shorter-acting stimulants usually work for only about 4 hours. So your child may have to take 2 to 3 doses a day. That’s a reason many parents prefer the longer-acting stimulants. Those can last up to 16 hours.

What side effects can children have on ADHD medication?

The most common side effects kids may have on stimulant ADHD medications are:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss

Less common side effects include:

  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Nervousness and irritability
  • Stomach pain
  • Poor circulation in hands and feet

Many of the early side effects will fade once your child’s body has adjusted to the medication. But if you notice any of them and have concerns, talk to your child’s doctor or pharmacist. If their appetite is impacted, they can take the medication after meals.

One very rare side effect of stimulants is that they can worsen existing heart problems. Stimulants aren’t recommended if your child has a heart issue. There are other medications to take instead.

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Are ADHD treatments gateway medications to drug and alcohol abuse?

It’s true that children and teens with ADHD are more likely than other kids to smoke, drink and use drugs. But this has more to do with their ADHD than their medications.

Kids with ADHD are naturally impulsive. They tend to take more risks than their peers. But medication and therapy can help tame some of those behaviors. According to the AAP, kids and teens who take stimulants aren’t at a greater risk of drug abuse than their peers. In fact, kids who manage their ADHD with medication and therapy may be less likely than other kids with ADHD to use drugs.

What non-stimulant medication options are there for children?

Some kids can’t tolerate stimulants because of the side effects. If that’s the case, they can try other medications. Those medications tend to be less effective than stimulants, but they still work well. Options include:

  • Strattera® (Atomoxetine). This medication works by increasing the amount of brain chemicals that help us focus. Unlike stimulants, it isn’t a controlled substance. So it’s easier to get a several-month supply. Atomoxetine can also help kids who have ADHD plus other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or tics. (According to the AAP, more than half of kids with tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome also have ADHD.)
  • Qelbree® (Viloxazine). This is a new medication. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to treat ADHD in kids and teens. As with many other ADHD medications, it works by increasing communication between brain cells and raising levels of certain brain chemicals.

When can my child with ADHD stop taking their medication?

If they hit pause on their regimen now, many of their ADHD symptoms will likely return. But it doesn’t mean they have to be on medication constantly.

Your child’s doctor may recommend “drug holidays” if your child experiences side effects or finds they need ADHD treatment only on school days. This means they don’t take their medication on the weekend or during school vacations. Of course, this decision is individual. Be sure to talk to your child’s doctor before changing their medication schedule.

For some kids with ADHD, their symptoms will go away over time. But for many others, their ADHD will follow them into adulthood. The symptoms may be different, but they can still affect everyday life.

Recommended reading: The grown-ups’ guide to ADHD.

Do adults with ADHD need medication?

Most of the time, yes. “Many adults have gone through their entire lives without knowing that they have ADHD and have struggled,” explains Dr. Adler. “They often don’t realize that there are medications out there that are very effective and will make their lives a lot easier.” (This is what it’s like to be diagnosed with ADHD as an adult.)

In fact, the first-line treatment for ADHD in adults is usually medication instead of behavior therapy. That said, adults often see the best results when they combine both, Dr. Adler notes.

What’s the best medication to treat adult ADHD?

“There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment approach for ADHD,” says Dr. Adler. “There are no medication guidelines in place for adults, unlike kids. It really comes down to family and health history as well as personal preference.”

For most adults with ADHD, the first-line treatment is usually amphetamines. These can reduce symptoms more effectively than methylphenidates. This is according to a large review of ADHD medication trials in the journal Lancet Psychiatry. As with kids, stimulants take about an hour to work. Common side effects of stimulants in adults include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping

It’s hard to say for sure if stimulants work better than non-stimulants in adults. But research has found that adults with ADHD have greater symptom relief with stimulants than with non-stimulants.

Are there adults with ADHD who shouldn’t take stimulant medication?

Some adults with ADHD may not be great candidates for stimulant medication, says Dr. Adler. This includes people who:

  • Have heart disease. Before you start stimulant medication, your doctor should check your blood pressure and pulse. They should also make sure you don’t have any symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain or palpitations. If you do take a stimulant, your care team should closely monitor your blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Have a history of alcohol or drug abuse. This isn’t a dealbreaker. But your doctor will want to monitor you more closely. Even if you don’t have a history of substance abuse, you should limit alcohol use to 1 to 2 drinks a day.
  • Have another mental health condition. This includes depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. Other medications may be a better choice to treat both.

Even if you can’t safely take stimulant medications, other drugs can help treat your symptoms, stresses Adler. Good options include Strattera® (atomoxetine) and the antidepressant Wellbutrin® (bupropion).

How do I figure out the best dose for me?

Through trial and error, says Dr. Adler. With stimulants, you’re generally started at a low dose each morning. Then your dose will gradually increase over weeks or even months.

It can be harder to tell if a medication is working in adults. The effects tend to be more subtle than they are in kids. So it may take longer to get to the right dose. The goal? To be at a dose high enough that you see improvements but with as few side effects as possible.

No matter how you manage your ADHD, make sure you get the best price on your medications. Simply show this free prescription discount card to your pharmacist. It could save you up to 80%.

 

 

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