What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder that can cause above-normal levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors. People with ADHD may also have trouble focusing their attention on a single task or sitting still for long periods of time.

Both adults and children can have ADHD. It’s a diagnosis the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes.

ADHD symptoms

A wide range of behaviors are associated with ADHD. Some of the more common ones include:

  • having trouble focusing or concentrating on tasks
  • being forgetful about completing tasks
  • being easily distracted
  • having difficulty sitting still
  • interrupting people while they’re talking

If you or your child has ADHD, you may have some or all of these symptoms. The symptoms you have depend on the type of ADHD you have

Types of ADHD

To make ADHD diagnoses more consistent, the APA has grouped the condition into three categories, or types. These types are predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactivity-impulsive, and a combination of both.

Predominantly inattentive

As the name suggests, people with this type of ADHD have extreme difficulty focusing, finishing tasks, and following instructions.

Experts also think that many children with the inattentive type of ADHD may not receive a proper diagnosis because they don’t tend to disrupt the classroom. This type is most common among girls with ADHD.

Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type

People with this type of ADHD show primarily hyperactive and impulsive behavior. This can include fidgeting, interrupting people while they’re talking, and not being able to wait their turn.

Although inattention is less of a concern with this type of ADHD, people with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD may still find it difficult to focus on tasks.

Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive type

This is the most common type of ADHD. People with this combined type of ADHD display both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms. These include an inability to pay attention, a tendency toward impulsiveness, and above-normal levels of activity and energy.

The type of ADHD you or your child has will determine how it’s treated. The type you have can change over time, so your treatment may change, too.

ADD vs. ADHD

You may have heard the terms “ADD” and “ADHD” and wondered what the difference is between them.

ADD, or attention deficit disorder, is an outdated term. It was previously used to describe people who have problems paying attention but aren’t hyperactive. The type of ADHD called predominantly inattentive is now used in place of ADD.

ADHD is the current overarching name of the condition. The term ADHD became official in May 2013

Adult ADHD

More than 60 percent Trusted Source of children with ADHD still exhibit symptoms as adults. But for many people, ADHD symptoms decrease or become less frequent as they get older.

That said, treatment is important. Untreated ADHD in adults can have a negative impact on many aspects of life. Symptoms such as trouble managing time, forgetfulness, and impatience can cause problems at work, home, and in all types of relationships.

ADHD in children

One in 10Trusted Source children between ages 5 to 17 years receives an ADHD diagnosis, making this one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders in the United States.

For children, ADHD is generally associated with problems at school. Children with ADHD often have trouble succeeding in a controlled classroom setting.

Boys are more than twice as likelyTrusted Source as girls to receive an ADHD diagnosis. This may be because boys tend to exhibit hallmark symptoms of hyperactivity. Although some girls with ADHD may have the classic symptoms of hyperactivity, many don’t. In many cases, girls with ADHD may:

  • daydream frequently
  • be hyper-talkative rather than hyperactive

Many symptoms of ADHD can be typical childhood behaviors, so it can be hard to know what’s ADHD-related and what’s not. 

What causes ADHD?

Despite how common ADHD is, doctors and researchers still aren’t sure what causes the condition. It’s believed to have neurological origins. Genetics may also play a role.

ResearchTrusted Source suggests that a reduction in dopamine is a factor in ADHD. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that helps move signals from one nerve to another. It plays a role in triggering emotional responses and movements.

Other researchTrusted Source suggests a structural difference in the brain. Findings indicate that people with ADHD have less gray matter volume. Gray matter includes the brain areas that help with:

  • speech
  • self-control
  • decision-making
  • muscle control

Researchers are still studying potential causes of ADHD, such as smoking during pregnancy.

ADHD testing and diagnosis

There’s no single test that can tell if you or your child has ADHD. A recent studyTrusted Source highlighted the benefits of a new test to diagnose adult ADHD, but many clinicians believe an ADHD diagnosis can’t be made based on one test.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will assess any symptoms you or your child has had over the previous six months.

Your doctor will likely gather information from teachers or family members and may use checklists and rating scales to review symptoms. They’ll also do a physical exam to check for other health problems. 

If you suspect that you or your child has ADHD, talk to your doctor about getting an evaluation. For your child, you can also talk to their school counselor. Schools regularly assess children for problems that may be affecting their educational performance.

For the assessment, provide your doctor or counselor with notes and observations about you or your child’s behavior.

If they suspect ADHD, they may refer you or your child to an ADHD specialist. Depending on the diagnosis, they may also suggest making an appointment with a psychiatrist or neurologist.

ADHD treatment

Treatment for ADHD typically includes behavioral therapies, medication, or both.

Types of therapy include psychotherapy, or talk therapy. With talk therapy, you or your child will discuss how ADHD affects your life and ways to help you manage it.

Another therapy type is behavioral therapy. This therapy can help you or your child with learning how to monitor and manage your behavior.

Medication can also be very helpful when you’re living with ADHD. ADHD medications are designed to affect brain chemicals in a way that enables you to better control your impulses and actions.

ADHD medication

The two main types of medications used to treat ADHD are stimulants and nonstimulants.

Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants are the most commonly prescribed ADHD medications. These drugs work by increasing the amounts of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine.

Examples of these drugs include methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine-based stimulants (Adderall).

If stimulants don’t work well for you or your child, or if they cause troublesome side effects, your doctor may suggest a nonstimulant medication. Certain nonstimulant medications work by increasing levels of norepinephrine in the brain.

These medications include atomoxetine (Strattera) and some antidepressants such as bupropion (Wellbutrin).

ADHD medications can have many benefits, as well as side effects.

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