Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Overview

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

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that causes problems paying attention (inattentive), being unable to sit still (hyperactive), and doing things without thinking first (impulsive). ADHD is more common in boys than girls. Girls are more likely to have trouble paying attention. Boys are more likely to be hyperactive.

ADHD used to be called attention deficit disorder (ADD).

What is the cause?

The exact cause of this disorder is not known. ADHD seems to run in families. Children with this disorder may have physical changes in their brain. These changes may mean that some parts of the brain are more active or less active than in other people.

There is no evidence that ADHD is caused by sugar or things added to foods such as preservatives and coloring. Allergies are not a common factor in causing ADHD either.

What are the symptoms?

There are 3 main types of ADHD in children and teens:

  • Problems paying attention (inattentive). Symptoms may include:
    • Being distracted by what is going on around them
    • Starting many projects but not finish them
    • Having trouble learning new tasks or following instructions
    • Forgetting or losing things
    • Daydreaming and getting confused easily
  • Problems sitting still and doing things without thinking first (impulsive and hyperactive). Symptoms may include:
    • Fidgeting, and getting bored very quickly
    • Acting or reacting to things quickly and without thinking of the outcome
    • Talking nonstop, interrupting other people who are talking, or speaking without thinking
    • Being impatient or quick to anger
    • Having trouble sleeping or being very restless during sleep
  • Combined type symptoms may include a combination of being inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive.

The symptoms of ADHD, especially problems sitting still, usually appear by age 2 or 3, and by first grade at the latest. 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.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child’s healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your child’s symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines your child is taking. He will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Your child may have tests or scans to help make a diagnosis.

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.

How is it treated?

The treatment of ADHD may involve:

  • 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 may find that background instrumental music is helpful. Children with ADHD need help learning how to organize their schoolwork, chores, and other activities. They also need more structure and daily routines than most people.
  • Behavioral training: Behavior therapy may help your child pay attention for a longer time and be able to sit still.
  • Medicines: Stimulant medicines appear to increase activity in the self-control areas of the brain. 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. No herb or dietary supplement has been proven to consistently or completely relieve the symptoms of ADHD. However, omega-3 fatty acids and certain vitamins and minerals may help to reduce some symptoms of ADHD. Supplements are not tested or standardized and may vary in strengths and effects. They may have side effects and are not always safe. Before your child takes any supplement, talk with your healthcare provider.

Exercising and 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 therapy.

About half of children with ADHD seem to “grow out of it” by their early twenties. The other half have little or no change in symptoms as they grow into 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. You might try playing 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. Use timers or alarms to help older children and teens keep on task.
  • 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.
  • Work with teachers to find something such as a stress ball, worry beads, worry stones, or a doodle pad that your child can bring to class to “fidget with” to help him stay focused.
  • If your child has trouble slowing down at bedtime, a planned quiet time before bedtime and background music when falling asleep are often helpful.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, take walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes. Make sure your child takes all medicines as directed by your provider or therapist. It is very important that your child takes his or her medicine even when feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your child’s symptoms may not improve or may get worse. Talk to your provider if your child has problems taking the medicine or if the medicines don’t seem to be working.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

For more information, contact:

  • Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-08-02
Last reviewed: 2014-10-06
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 healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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