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ADHD medicines

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Medicine can be used in combination with other methods to manage symptoms of ADHD.
  • Often, a class of medicines known as stimulants can help to treat ADHD. Other medicines can also be used for treatment, which include guanfacine, atomoxetine, clonidine and some antidepressants.
  • You need a prescription for all ADHD medicines.
  • Usually, your first prescription can only be prescribed by a specialist doctor, such as a paediatrician or psychiatrist.
  • Common side effects of stimulant medicines include reduced appetite, headache, stomach ache, insomnia, anxiety and increased blood pressure.

What is ADHD medicine?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medicine is used to help treat ADHD symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe a stimulant medicine, also known as psychostimulants. These medicines stimulate the central nervous system. Sometimes, other medicines are also used to treat ADHD, for example atomoxetine, guanfacine or clonidine.

Children, adolescents and adults may all benefit from ADHD medicines.

ADHD medicines are usually prescribed by a specialist doctor, such as a paediatrician or psychiatrist.

What types of ADHD medicine might I be given or prescribed?

Stimulants are usually the first medicine your doctor will suggest you try if your ADHD impacts your life in a negative way. This group of medicine includes methylphenidate (which can be short or long acting), dexamfetamine (also spelled dexamphetamine) and lisdexamfetamine.

Short-acting medicine works soon after you take it, but only for a limited time. Long-acting medicine is slower to become effective after you take it, but its effects last for a longer period of time. A short-acting medicine may be given when the person taking the medicine needs to be closely monitored. A long-acting formulation may be preferred for convenience.

If one stimulant doesn't work, then your doctor can prescribe you a different one.

If stimulants don't help your symptoms, you can't take them because of another medical condition, or if you get side effects from taking them, then non-stimulant ADHD medicines can be tried, such as atomoxetine or guanfacine. Your child or teenager may try clonidine as another option. Sometimes, a combination of different medicines may be used.

How does ADHD medicine work?

Stimulants are thought to work in ADHD by adjusting the amount of chemical messengers in the brain, such as dopamine and noradrenaline. These messengers play a role in improving behaviour, impulsiveness, attention and memory.

Atomoxetine and guanfacine are medicines that work differently to stimulants, but also change how chemical messengers work in the brain. They are known as non-stimulant ADHD medicines.

Clonidine is another non-stimulant medicine that your doctor may recommend if your child has ADHD, shows signs of aggression or has sleep problems.

Who can prescribe ADHD medicine?

Each Australian state and territory have their own laws about which doctors can prescribe ADHD medicines. Prescribing stimulant medicines is tightly controlled; for example, only doctors who have special approval can prescribe them and scripts must be held at the pharmacy. This is because there are risks involved. For example, if the medicines are not taken as they are prescribed, you can become addicted to them.

Because prescribing laws vary in each Australian state and territory, sourcing ADHD medicine can be confusing for people who travel across borders. Ask your doctor more about this before you move or travel for work.

Does ADHD medicine have any side effects or risks associated with it?

Side effects are quite common with psychostimulant medicines but are usually minor and often disappear when the dose of medication is adjusted with the help of your prescriber.

The most common side effects of psychostimulants are reduced appetite, weight loss, increased anxiety and irritability, insomnia, stomach ache and headache. Stimulants may also slow down your child's growth in height.

To help manage reduced appetite, you should take the stimulants with or after meals.

To help prevent the stimulants impacting your sleep, you should not take them after early afternoon.

Muscle twitching of the face or neck may start when you take psychostimulants or get worse if you have had any twitching previously.

Many medicines that are used to treat ADHD can affect the heart. Stimulants can cause high blood pressure. Clonidine and guanfacine can cause low blood pressure.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor regularly while receiving treatment for ADHD. Your doctor will review the effectiveness of the treatment and monitor for any potential side effects. They can adjust the dose, add another medicine or change your medicine if needed.

After discussion with your doctor, you may decide to stop or reduce your medicine dose — this might be because of side effects, or if the medicine is not working for you.

You should not stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor. It may need to be reduced slowly rather than stopped suddenly.

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Are there any alternatives to ADHD medicine?

There are many treatment options for ADHD that don't involve taking medicine or can be used alongside taking medicine. Sometimes, lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and improving sleep patterns, can help you manage your ADHD better. Staying educated about ADHD can help to improve your daily life.

For adults with ADHD, there are different approaches that can be effective. These may include changing your environment to make life easier, developing strategies that focus on your strengths, learning how to manage stress and developing problem-solving skills. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy, ADHD coaching or mindfulness therapy may also benefit you.

If you have a child with ADHD, parent-family training can empower you to support your child with ADHD — this is often led by a psychologist. In children, non-medicine treatments for ADHD should be tried first. If your doctor prescribes ADHD medicines for your child, they are often used together with non-medicine treatments, and may include one or more of the following:

  • behavioural therapy
  • psychotherapy
  • emotional counselling
  • social skills training
  • family counselling or parent skills training
  • time management training
  • lifestyle changes

Resources and support

  • NSW Health has resources to help you if your child has been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • The Australian ADHD Professionals Association has a guide that explains the recommendations for treatments for adults and children with ADHD.
  • The Australian ADHD Professionals Association has a factsheet about ADHD for people who belong to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2024

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