Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder—meaning, the condition can affect how your brain grows and develops. ADHD is common in children, though symptoms can linger until adulthood and affect your daily functioning as an adult as well.
The hallmark symptoms of ADHD are inattention (not being able to focus), hyperactivity (feeling restless), and impulsivity (making decisions without thinking). These symptoms can depend on the type of ADHD you have and can range from mild to moderate. How often these symptoms occur changes over time. When left untreated, ADHD symptoms can affect performance at school, relationships with others, and the ability to complete daily tasks.
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of ADHD and why people experience these symptoms. But, a family history of ADHD and prenatal (before birth) exposure to toxins are a few factors that can increase a child’s risk of developing the condition.
While there is no cure for ADHD, you or your child can manage symptoms with the right treatment. The most common treatment options include medication and therapies—which you can either take alone or in conjunction with one another. Your healthcare provider can help you create a treatment plan based on what’s best for your or your child’s needs.
Types of ADHD
It’s normal to experience symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity from time to time. But for people living with ADHD, these symptoms last for more than six months and typically disrupt daily life. There are three types of ADHD and the symptoms you experience will depend on the type of ADHD that you or your child have.
The three types of ADHD include:
- Predominantly inattentive ADHD: Displaying symptoms of inattention such as difficulty staying on task, trouble focusing, and not being able to follow directions or conversations
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD: Showing symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity including not being able to sit still, acting without thinking, and having difficulty with self-control
- Combined ADHD: Having symptoms of both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive ADHD
The symptoms of ADHD that you or your child will experience depend on the type of ADHD your or they have. In order to receive a diagnosis for ADHD, you or your child have to display symptoms for at least six months.
People with predominantly inattentive ADHD may have the following symptoms:
- Losing or misplacing things
- Being disorganized or easily distracted
- Not being able to focus
- Having trouble completing tasks, chores, or assignments
- Forgetting important information
People with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD can experience:
- Excessive fidgeting or having too much energy
- Difficulty taking turns
- Blurting out answers
- Intruding or interrupting other people’s activities or conversations
- Making hasty decisions
Those with combined ADHD tend to express a relatively equal amount of symptoms from both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive types of ADHD. Combined ADHD is the most common type—accounting for nearly 60% of all cases of ADHD.
Neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD affect how the brain grows and develops. However, the exact cause of ADHD is unknown. Studies have shown that a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors might play a role in the development of ADHD in children.
ADHD tends to run in families. If you have a first-degree relative (e.g., parent or sibling) with ADHD, your risk of developing ADHD is about nine times greater compared to the general public. However, having a family history of ADHD does not guarantee that you’ll develop ADHD in your lifetime—it just means you have a higher risk of experiencing symptoms.
Researchers are also exploring how non-genetic factors like the environment and lifestyle habits affect the risk of developing ADHD. Non-genetic factors that can increase a child’s risk of ADHD include:
- Prenatal exposure to toxins such as lead or secondhand smoke
- Premature delivery
- Low birth weight
- Brain injury
- The birthing parent experiencing extreme stress or trauma during pregnancy or childbirth
There is no single test to diagnose ADHD. Because of this, the diagnosis process involves many steps. A healthcare provider may also seek information from parents, caregivers, and teachers to help make an accurate ADHD diagnosis.
A primary care provider or mental health professional (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist) can make an ADHD diagnosis. In addition to taking your or your child’s medical history, your healthcare provider can also perform the following:
- Physical exam: Includes vision and hearing screening, assessment of coordination, and observation of your or your child’s behavior and communication skills
- Developmental history: Questions about developmental milestones related to speech, language, and communication
- Behavioral and educational assessment: Asks about your child’s behaviors in home and school environments
- DSM-5 criteria: Diagnostic criteria that healthcare providers can use to make an accurate ADHD diagnosis based on the number of symptoms you or your child are experiencing
There is no cure for ADHD, but the right treatment can help reduce ADHD symptoms and improve your ability to manage ADHD-related challenges. ADHD treatment includes medication and different types of therapy. You or your child can use these treatments alone or together.
There are two main types of medications that are currently available for ADHD: stimulants and non-stimulants. These medications increase dopamine and norepinephrine—chemicals in the brain that help with thinking, attention, and self-control.
The most common stimulant medications are:
- Methylphenidate: Ritalin, Concerta, Methylin, Metadate, and Focalin
- Amphetamines: Adderall, Dexedrine, Dextrostat, and Vyvanse
The most common non-stimulant medications include:
- Strattera (atomoxetine)
- Qelbree (viloxazine)
- Intuniv (guanfacine)
- Kapvay (clonidine)
Because ADHD affects thinking and behaviors, untreated ADHD can affect performance at school or work, relationships with others, and overall quality of life. Adding therapy to your treatment plan can help you cope with ADHD-related challenges. Healthcare providers recommend starting therapy as soon as you get an ADHD diagnosis.
The goals of therapy are to improve positive behaviors and reduce unwanted or problematic behaviors. Common types of therapy for ADHD include:
- Parent training in behavior management: Parents are trained in behavior therapy, learning skills and strategies to help their child
- Behavior therapy with children: Helps children manage ADHD symptoms to better function at home, school, or in their community
- Behavioral classroom management: A teacher-lead approach that includes encouraging positive behaviors through a rewards system and a daily report card
- Organizational skills training: Children and adolescents learn time management, planning skills, and ways to stay organized
- Cognitive behavior therapy: A therapist provides talk therapy to learn more about your behaviors, thinking, and feelings
There is no way to prevent the development of ADHD. However, some preventative measures can help you or your child manage symptoms. Keep in mind: you should use prevention strategies alongside medical treatment—not in place of medication or therapy.
Some strategies to try include:
- Managing distractions: When your child is doing homework or chores, limit their screen time on tv, computers, and phones
- Creating positive opportunities: Help your child discover activities that they do well and encourage them to continue participating in those hobbies
- Helping your child with planning: Try breaking down difficult or complex tasks into smaller, easier steps and take breaks if you notice that they are becoming stressed with longer tasks
- Rewarding good behaviors: Use a chart to list and track goals and positive behaviors and encourage your child when they are doing well
Symptoms of ADHD can look similar to other developmental, emotional, or behavioral conditions. Some of these disorders may also exist along with ADHD—which are known as “comorbid” or “co-occurring” conditions.
During your diagnostic process, a healthcare provider will likely conduct a variety of tests and evaluations to rule out other conditions before giving you an ADHD diagnosis. Your provider may be screening for any of the following co-occurring and related conditions:
- Learning disabilities
- Language disorder
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Sleep disorders
- Substance use
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Conduct disorder
Living With ADHD
ADHD is considered a chronic (long-term) condition. Symptoms can be most disruptive during childhood and adolescence, but the condition can last into adulthood. When left untreated, ADHD increases the risk of accidents, school failure or dropout, poor performance at work, and trouble maintaining or creating relationships with others.
With proper management, people with ADHD can gain control of their symptoms and live productive lives. While medication and therapy are part of a standard treatment plan, additional tips to manage ADHD symptoms include:
- Engaging in regular exercise or physical activity
- Maintaining a nutritious and well-balanced diet
- Limiting screen time
- Getting enough sleep
- Creating a routine and following a schedule each day
- Prioritizing time-sensitive activities
- Writing down important information like appointments, assignments, and tasks
- Following your treatment plan as directed
- Staying in touch with your healthcare provider to update them on how treatment is going or if you need to make any adjustments
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