For those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the daily fight to maintain focus can be exhausting. While treatment approaches might ease some symptoms, the more direct approach is with medication. Still, the side effects of ADHD medication can also worsen situations for some people.
For this reason, we’re going to explore the ADHD medication side effects, identify which are common and which ones we should keep an eye out, and hopefully provide more clarity on this complicated issue. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What are the Medications for ADHD?
When it comes to medicating ADHD, there is both good and bad news.
To get the bad news out of the way first: these medications are not a cure. Rather, they are a way to ease symptoms and regulate brain functionality.
The good news is that ADHD medication is limited to only 6 types that are split into 2 distinct classifications. Beyond making it easier for us to identify side effects, it’ll also help you navigate the landscape.
Let’s break these medications down and explain their 2 classifications:
Stimulant medications are those that increase brain activity in targeted areas in order to encourage focus and attention. They do so by utilizing amphetamines or methylphenidate in concentrated therapeutic doses.
Stimulant medications allow a constant flow of dopamine to the brain. This helps with healthy functioning of attention, movement, and uplifted mood. ¹
These are the most common form of ADHD medication, with over 70% of patients displaying a beneficial change in both impulsivity and retention of attention. ²
The brand names for stimulant meds are:
- Adderall (amphetamines)
- Ritalin and Concerta (methylphenidate)
Non-stimulant-based medications don’t depend on chemicals – like amphetamines – to provide neurotransmitters to the brain. Instead, these forms of medications often act as inhibitors to other chemicals in the brain.
Similar to a form of antidepressants, non-stimulant ADHD meds might encourage the natural attention-producing transmitters, such as dopamine. It does so by restricting chemicals that might block the production of these neurotransmitters.³
The brand names for non-stimulant meds are:
- Strattera (atomoxetine)
- Qelbree (viloxazine)
- Catapres and Kapvay (clonidine)
- Tenex and Intuniv (guanfacine)
What are the Side Effects of ADHD Medication?
As with any medication, ADHD meds have side effects. Most of these side effects are relatively harmless, especially in long-term users. However, there are some that can be concerning and it’s important to be aware of the effects these medications.
Some of the most common side effects of ADHD medication include:
Insomnia & Changes in Sleep
As both forms of ADHD medications alter the brain chemistry, it’s understandable that these drugs might interfere with one’s ability to sleep. Some of these medications might increase sleep while others may cause insomnia. ⁴
If you bring up these changes to a monitoring physician, they will likely change your dosage or switch you to a new medication that might be more tolerable.
One of the more stark side effects of ADHD medication is a change in dietary habits. For most, it’s a reduction in consumption, with appetites not being proportional to what it was before taking the medication.
While it may seem concerning, a change in appetite, including a loss of usual hunger is common and may regulate as the meds reach therapeutic levels. ⁵
However, if the reduction or increase of appetite gets to the point where a patient is not getting necessary caloric intake, then a change in dosage, a ceasing of taking the medication, or a change in medication might be warranted.
Headaches & Dizziness
A common complaint from those taking these kinds of medications is that they experience lightheadedness as well as headaches. These symptoms are common but not something to shrug off either. Everyone’s tolerance to medication differs and lightheadedness and vertigo-like symptoms are prevalent in ADHD meds.
For most, headaches and dizziness occur within the first three to six weeks of taking the meds, but eventually even out for users once their body gets used to the medication. However, if these symptoms persist or get worse, it’s best to consult the prescribing doctor to ensure the dosage is correct.
Changes in Mood, Emotional Processing & Behavior
It’s common for those taking ADHD meds – especially those starting out on them – to experience shifts in mood. These changes in mood often include increases in irritability and feeling frustrated. Behaviors such as being uncooperative and being unable to communicate emotions properly are also common but more in children taking new ADHD medications.
All of these experiences and emotional changes are often temporary and like other side effects mentioned, will regulate as the patient becomes familiar with the medication. ⁶
However, if the changes in mood, emotions, and behaviors become overwhelming, it may be an indication that the medication’s dose is too strong. For both adults and children taking ADHD medication, it’s vital that an ability to communicate complications with their symptoms and side effects be considered and taken seriously.
Changes in emotional processing, mood shifts, and behavior have a compounding effect and can exacerbate when they are ignored. It’s also important to understand that these medications are altering the brain chemistry so while emotional changes are to be expected, rapid changes in overall mood that are not normal should be monitored and shared with the medical team.
Other ADHD Medication Risks
While common symptoms may come and go, there are more serious symptoms that can occur. If any of these symptoms present themselves and reoccur, it may be a sign that the particular medication prescribed is not for you.
If you or a loved one doesn’t feel correct on a medication you seek medical intervention. In cases of emergency do not hesitate to call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.
Here are the rare but serious complications that ADHD medications can cause:
Blood Pressure & Heart Rate Changes
Minor inflation of blood pressure and an increase in blood pressure can occur with these kinds of medications. Stimulant-based ADHD medications can increase heart rate. Thus those with cardiovascular issues or a family history of heart conditions should discuss such issues with their medical provider to ensure the medication is safe to use. ⁷
It’s an unfortunate reality that those with ADHD are more susceptible to having seizures. While that’s not to say that all ADHD patients will experience seizures, the risk is there.
Stimulant medications, such as in the case of methylphenidate, can aggravate underlying epilepsy or spur seizures. ⁸
Increase in Anxiety & Depression
Stimulants can add to the risk of increased anxiety and depression in those that take them. The reason is that the brain chemistry is altered by stimulants and thus in high dosages it can negatively impact the patient’s mental state. ⁹
If you or a loved one are taking ADHD meds and are experiencing a significant increase in anxiety and depression-related symptoms, a consultation with a doctor or psychiatrist is important as it could result in lowering the dose or changing the meds.
National Suicide Lifeline
If depression or anxiety symptoms result in harmful thoughts or actions, it should be taken seriously. In cases of self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions, calling the Suicide Lifeline at 988 or reaching out to emergency personnel is imperative.
Risks of Medication if You Don’t Have ADHD
There has been a trend in the last ten to fifteen years of those without ADHD utilizing ADHD medications to aid in performing either academically or professionally. While those who do this light get that good grade, the short-term reward pales to the long-term risks that come with taking these meds recreationally.
Taking stimulant medications when you don’t need them can alter cognitive ability and worst of all can lead to addiction. ¹⁰
While the stimulants help those with ADHD regulate their overactive brains, those who are attention typical can find themselves overloading their dopamine receptors. When the medication’s effects subside, the brain becomes fixated on having that same serotonin and dopamine rush and thus crave the stimulant medication. ¹¹
ADHD medication can provide relief and reliable results for day-to-day success. While it’s true that these meds include side effects, it’s important to weigh these sensations to the impact that these meds can provide.
The majority of these side effects may be benign for some but they may be more concerning for others. Each person’s experience with medications is unique to them and they should discuss these issues with their doctor.
Do you still have questions about the side effects of ADHD medication?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you
¹ National Institute on Drug Abuse: Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines
² Association for Child & Adolescent Mental Health: A Review of Stimulant Drug Research with Hyperactivity
³ Child Mind Institute: What Are Non-stimulant Medications for ADHD?
⁴ National Center for Biotechnical Information: ADHD Treatments, Sleep, and Sleep Problems
⁵ Ohio State University Medical Press: ADHD Medications and Your Child’s Appetite
⁶ Yale School of Medicine: Irritability and ADHD medications
⁷ National Center for Biotechnical Information: What is the effect of ADHD stimulant medication on heart rate and blood pressure
⁸ Cochrane Research: Stimulant and non-stimulant drug therapy for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and epilepsy
⁹ Child Mind Institute: Can Adderall and other drugs used to treat ADHD cause depression?
¹⁰ National Center for Biotechnical Information: Prescription stimulants in individuals with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: misuse, cognitive impact, and adverse effects
¹¹ National Institute on Drug Abuse: What are prescription stimulants?