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Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Overview


What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common mental health problem in children. Children with ADHD often have problems paying attention, are unable to sit still, and do things without thinking first. You may also hear it called attention deficit disorder (ADD).

The disorder begins in the preschool years and may last into adulthood. About half of children with ADHD also have learning problems such as a reading disability. About half of ADHD children and teenagers have behavior problems. This may include breaking rules, talking back, and hitting other children.

ADHD is more common in boys than girls. Girls are more likely to have trouble paying attention. Boys are more likely to be hyperactive.

How does it occur?

The exact cause of ADHD has not yet been found. ADHD seems to run in families. If a parent, uncle, or grandparent has ADHD, other family members may also develop it. People with ADHD have several small differences in the brain. These differences are in the front part of the brain (an area involved in self-control) and in some parts in the center of the brain.

Much research has looked at whether ADHD is caused by sugar or things added to foods such as preservatives and coloring. The evidence has not connected these with ADHD. Allergies are not a common factor in causing ADHD either.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of ADHD, especially hyperactivity, usually appear by age 2 or 3 and by first grade at the latest. There are 3 main symptoms of ADHD: being easily distracted, being impulsive, and being hyperactive.

Children and teens with ADHD:

  • Are distracted by what is going on around them.
  • Have trouble waiting in line or taking turns.
  • Start many projects but do not finish them.
  • Act or react quickly without thinking of the outcome.
  • Are quick to anger.
  • Fidget and cannot sit still.
  • Walk, run, or climb around when others are seated.
  • Get bored very quickly.

There are 3 forms of ADHD:

  • Combined ADHD. Your child has all of the main symptoms: distractibility, poor impulse control, and hyperactivity.
  • Predominately inattentive. Your child has problems with focus and attention. This form of ADHD is often missed because there may be very little hyperactivity or impulsivity. This form is especially common among girls.
  • Predominately impulsive-hyperactive. Poor self-control is the main problem.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about the symptoms and will observe your child's behavior for signs of ADHD. Parents and teachers may be asked questions about ADHD symptoms. Your child may need to see a mental health professional for tests of attention and self-control. There are no useful physical tests such as blood tests or brain scans for diagnosing ADHD.

To diagnose ADHD, it must be clear that the symptoms persist and interfere in a major way with daily life.

How is it treated?

The treatment of ADHD may involve 3 types of treatment:

  • Learning coping skills: Children with ADHD learn to manage situations that distract and over-excite them. They should learn to study in quiet places and to take frequent breaks. In a classroom, they do best at individual desks rather than at a table with others. They also often find that background instrumental music is helpful. Children with ADHD need help learning how to organize. They also need more structure and daily routine than most people.
  • Behavioral training: Behavior programs may help your child develop a longer attention span and be able to sit still.
  • Medicines: Since the 1920s, medicines such as methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) have been used. They are stimulants, and appear to stimulate the self-control areas of the brain. Another medicine often used is dextroamphetamine/amphetamine (Adderall). These medicines do not slow you down, but rather increase self-regulation. About 70% of children with ADHD improve with these medicines. The most common side effects are loss of appetite and trouble getting to sleep. Your child's dosage will be gradually adjusted to reduce side effects. Sometimes, medicines are used only on school days. When these medicines are not effective, there are other medicines that can help with ADHD.

Claims have been made that certain herbal and dietary products help control ADHD symptoms. Omega fatty acid supplements and certain vitamins and minerals may help symptoms of ADHD. No herb or dietary supplement has been proven to consistently or completely relieve symptoms of ADHD. Supplements are not tested or standardized and may vary in strength and effects. They may have side effects and are not always safe.

Learning ways to relax may help. Yoga and meditation may also be helpful. You may want to talk with your healthcare provider about using these methods along with medicines and psychotherapy.

How long do the effects last?

About half of people with ADHD seem to "grow out of it" by their early twenties. The other half show a slight change or no change in symptoms as they grow into adulthood. Being more patient and better able to sit still are the most common improvements between late childhood and young adulthood.

What can I do to help my child?

There are many ways to help manage ADHD:

  • When children need to read or concentrate, have them work away from the sounds of television, radio, or others talking.
  • When your child needs to concentrate, try having low-level background sound such as white noise or instrumental music.
  • Encourage your child to do tasks in short blocks of time with breaks in between.
  • Teach your child how to use a planner and how to organize schoolwork.
  • Most school districts have special programs to help children with ADHD. Find out what services are available through the school district or your community to help
  • Help your child to follow a very structured daily routine.
  • If your child has trouble slowing down at bedtime, a planned quiet time before bedtime and background music when falling asleep are often helpful.
  • Encourage your child to exercise regularly.
  • Help your child to get enough sleep.
  • Help your child to eat a healthy diet.
  • Limit caffeine.

For more information, contact:
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
8181 Professional Place, Suite 150,
Landover, MD 20785
Telephone: (800) 233-4050
Web site: http://www.chadd.org/


Written by Gayle Zieman, PhD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-22
Last reviewed: 2010-06-11

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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