The Truth About Medications for ADHD Children

by Piper Li
While ADHD medications may increase attentiveness, they may also cause health concerns.

While ADHD medications may increase attentiveness, they may also cause health concerns.

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a syndrome characterized by impulsivity, inattentiveness, hyperactivity and distractibility. While many medications, generally stimulants, are in widespread use in treating children with ADHD, they can have serious side effects. Some parents of children with ADHD prefer alternative therapies to prescription drugs, although claims of health benefits are not borne out by compelling research to date.

Diagnosis

To treat a child with medications, health care professionals must assess her behavioral patterns. Common behaviors of children diagnosed with ADHD include an inability to retain information in short-term memory or to regulate emotions, trouble with establishing goals and difficulty in shifting between mental activities. Stimulant drugs are the primary medications for treating the symptoms of ADHD. Although these drugs usually stimulate the central nervous system, they tend to have a paradoxical effect in children with ADHD, calming rather than exacerbating their excess energy.

Controversy

ADHD is noted in 7.4 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 years old, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Although this syndrome is a recognized disorder, the United States accounts for 90 percent of the world's prescription stimulants for ADHD, concerning many parents and health professionals about the possibility of overprescribing.

Prescription Medications

Stimulants used for treating ADHD include oral medications, such as Adderall, Focalin, Ritalin, Concerta, Vyvanse and Dexedrine. These drugs work by increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine, a substance that helps with cognitive function. Side effects of stimulant drugs include mood changes, anxiety, irritability and sadness. Stimulant medications are also associated with sudden death in children with heart problems. While stimulant drugs may help some children focus better, they can also cause slow growth and weight gain, as well as paranoia and manic behavior.

Strattera was the first non-stimulant drug approved to treat children with ADHD. This medication may help reduce the symptoms of ADHD by increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, but may cause an increase in suicidal thoughts and actions, especially in children who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder.

Off-label medications are ones the FDA has not approved for a specific use, but doctors may prescribe them for that purpose. In treating children with ADHD, common off-label medications include antidepressants such as Wellbutrin and antihypertensive medications such as Catapres and Tenex. These medications may help minimize symptoms of impulsivity, hyperactivity and aggression. Possible side effects include agitation, sleeplessness, headache, fatigue and slowing of the heart rate.

Alternative Approaches

While many children diagnosed with ADHD take prescription medication, some parents choose alternative therapies, even though little scientific evidence exists to support the effectiveness of these treatments. Non-medical approaches include restricting dietary allergens, such as milk, chocolate, eggs and chemical additives. Herbal supplements, including St. John's wort, panax ginseng, pine bark extract and ginkgo biloba, are also employed in alternative healing. Neurofeedback, art therapy and music therapy are two types of feedback approaches used to help increase children's attention and academic performance. Contact your child's pediatrician before taking any alternative or prescription medication. Even a harmless alternative herbal treatment can have possible negative interactions with prescription medications or foods.

About the Author

Piper Li, a professional freelance writer, began writing in 1989. Her articles appear online at Biz Mojo, Walden University and various other websites. She is the co-editor for "Kansas Women: Focus on Health." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Mesa State, Li enjoys writing about health, horticulture and business management.

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