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Quick Facts

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

By The Manual's Editorial Staff, ,

What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder that makes it hard to focus, pay attention, and sit still. It can lead to problems carrying out tasks at school and home.

ADHD symptoms can be mild or severe. Certain places (like school) can make them worse, but they happen in at least two places.

  • ADHD starts in childhood and many people with ADHD continue to have symptoms in adulthood

  • Children with ADHD can havetrouble paying attention, be hyperactive (have unusually high activity levels), or both

  • Children often show symptoms by age 4

  • Sometimes children with ADHD will cope well with their symptoms until they reach middle school

  • Many children with ADHD also have learning disorders

  • ADHD is diagnosed using questionnaires and observing the child

  • Medicine, using scheduled routines at home and school, and changing parenting strategies (plans for raising your child) can treat ADHD

What causes ADHD?

Doctors aren't sure why a child gets ADHD is probably caused by problems with neurotransmitters in a child’s brain. Neurotransmitters are substances that sendand getmessagesto nerve cells inthe brain.

People have a higher chance of having ADHD if they:

  • Have relatives with ADHD (it runs in their family)

  • Weighed less than 3 pounds at birth

  • Had a head injury or brain infection

  • Have sleep apnea from blocked airways

  • Have or had low iron levels

  • Were exposed to lead, alcohol, tobacco, or cocaine before birth

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

ADHD affects attention span, and the ability to stick with a task and finish it.

Preschool children with ADHD may have symptoms like:

  • Overactivity

  • Trouble communicating such as difficulty listening and talking when it's not your turn

  • Trouble getting alongi with other children

School-age children with ADHD may have:

  • Trouble paying attention

  • Impulsivity (such as acting out or fidgeting)

  • Disorganization (such as messiness)

Signs of trouble paying attention:

  • Trouble paying attention to details during work and play

  • Not listening when being talked to

  • Not following instructions or finishing tasks

  • Avoiding tasks that take a lot of thinking

  • Trouble organizing tasks

  • Being easily distracted

  • Losing or forgetting things

Signs of hyperactivity:

  • Fidgeting with hands or feet or moving legs

  • Getting out of their seat at school or at home

  • Running or climbing more than usual

  • Trouble playing quietly

  • Talking more than usual

Signs of being impulsive:

  • Shouting out answers before a question has been asked

  • Trouble waiting for a turn

  • Talking when it isn’t their turn or interrupting others

Other symptoms:

  • Problems with self-esteem (when you don't feel good about yourself)

  • Feeling so sad that you don't want to do anything (called depression)

  • Feeling worried or nervous

  • Problem with authority such as not respecting and listening to adults

  • Temper tantrums as a young child

  • Getting angry easily

Most children with ADHD become less hyperactive as they get older and are better able to cope. Most will grow up to be creative and productive adults. However, untreated ADHD can raise the chanceof alcohol abuse, substance abuse, or suicide.

ADHD in adults

Signs of ADHD in adults:

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty completing tasks

  • Restlessness

  • Mood swings

  • Impatience

  • Difficulty in relationships

ADHD in adults can sometimes seem to be a mood disorder or anxiety.

How can doctors tell if my child has ADHD?

Doctors suspect ADHD if your child has:

  • Symptoms in 2 or more settings, such as home and school

  • Symptoms that aren't typical for children your child’s age—they happen much more often or are much more intense

To tell for sure, doctors will ask you questions and send your child for testing.

How do doctors treat ADHD?

Doctors will treat your child with:

  • Behavioral therapy

  • Medicine (psychostimulants)

ADHD medicines can have side effects like:

  • Sleep problems (such as staying awake too long)

  • You don't feel like eating or eat very little

  • Extreme sadness, or worry and nervousness

  • Headaches

  • Stomachaches

  • High blood pressure

  • Slower growth

To lessen the side effects, your doctor may suggest stopping medicine at night or on weekends.

Doctors may suggest:

  • Using routines and schedules at home and school

  • Changing some of your parenting strategies (plans for raising your child)

  • Behavior therapy for your child with a psychologist

A child with ADHD may need special help at school. In the United States, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to children and adolescents with ADHD.