Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2001;64(5):831-832

What is ADHD? What are its signs?

ADHD stands for attention-deficit/hyper-activity disorder. This disorder is also known as hyperactivity, or attention deficit disorder (ADD). At least 9 percent of school-age children have ADHD.

Children with ADHD can show signs of poor attention, hyperactivity, or both. If they have poor attention, they may find it hard to concentrate, follow directions or finish a job. If they have hyperactivity, they may fidget, talk too much, interrupt others or keep leaving their seats at school. Children with ADHD can have trouble finishing schoolwork, getting along with other children, following directions and obeying rules.

All children show some of these behaviors some of the time. However, in children with ADHD, these behaviors happen more often, are more severe and are disruptive in school and at home.

What is the best way to be sure that my child has ADHD and not some other problem?

To find out if your child has ADHD, your doctor will probably need to see your child several times. No lab tests or X-rays are needed. You and your child's teachers will fill out special forms called rating scales. These forms will help your doctor see how often ADHD behaviors happen at home and in school, and how severe these behaviors are.

Your doctor will look at the records of your child's school performance and the information from the rating scales. The doctor will also examine your child and check to be sure that your child's vision and hearing are normal.

Because many children with ADHD also have emotional disorders or learning disabilities, your child's doctor or teachers may recommend that your child see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

What are some signs of learning disabilities and emotional disorders?

Problems with reading, language or math may be signs of a learning disability.

Extreme stubbornness, refusal to obey instructions and temper tantrums may be signs of an emotional problem called oppositional defiant disorder.

Sadness may be a sign of depression. Nervousness may also be a sign of anxiety.

What is the usual treatment for ADHD?

Many things can help children with ADHD. Depending on the needs of your child, your doctor may recommend making changes in the classroom, and starting a program of behavior modification or psychological counseling.

Stimulant medicines help children with ADHD concentrate better and be less hyperactive.

Methylphenidate (brand name: Ritalin) is the stimulant medicine most often used. Other stimulant medicines used to treat this problem are dextroamphetamine (brand names: Dexedrine and DextroStat), amphetamine-dextroamphetamine (brand name: Adderall), and pemoline (brand name: Cylert).

Are stimulant medicines safe?

Scientists have studied thousands of children treated with stimulant medicines. No serious or long-term side effects from these medicines have been found. Stimulant use in the school years does not cause drug addiction. It does not increase the chance of future drug abuse.

Pemoline is the only stimulant medicine that has serious side effects. In a very few children, this medicine has caused liver injury. Children who are taking pemoline must get blood tests every two weeks to be sure that their liver is working the right way.

Are other kinds of treatments helpful?

Behavioral and educational techniques and counseling can do a lot to improve some ADHD behaviors. No studies show that limiting or never eating foods that contain preservatives or sugar help. No studies show that eye-training exercises, megavitamins or mineral supplements help, either.

How can I learn more about ADHD?

School counselors can give you information on ADHD. The main information and advocacy group for children, adults, and families who are dealing with ADHD is Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD):


  • 8181 Professional Place, Suite 201

  • Landover, MD 20785

  • Telephone: 1-800-233-4050

  • Fax: 1-301-306-7090

  • Web address:

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