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Information on ADHD Medications

Medical Editor:

What are ADHD medications and how do they work?

ADHD medications are drugs used to treat some of the characteristic behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including inattention, hyperactivity, and poor impulse control.

Drugs used to treat ADHD target chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters. One type of ADHD medication works by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Another type of ADHD drug increases the level of another neurotransmitter, norepinephrine.

ADHD drug treatment should begin only after a specific diagnosis of ADHD has been made. A clinical diagnosis requires that symptoms have persisted for at least six months. There is no blood test or radiological scan that can diagnose ADHD.

Most children with ADHD are diagnosed in preschool or early in elementary school. It's estimated that up to 7%-8% of school-age children in the United States have ADHD. In addition, it may be present in as many as 4% of U.S. adults.

For what conditions are ADHD medications used?

Some stimulant medications used for ADHD drug treatment are used for treating both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, a condition in which there is excessive daytime sleepiness.

One nonstimulant medication, atomoxetine (Strattera), is indicated only for ADHD.

Other medications that are not FDA approved for ADHD but may be used in treatment include two medications commonly used to treat high blood pressure -- clonidine (Catapres) and guanfacine (Tenex). In addition, medications used to treat depression, including tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline, imipramine) as well as bupropion (Wellbutrin), may be used in ADHD drug treatment.

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