Diseases & Conditions

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a disorder in which an individual consistently shows certain behaviors over time. The three categories for these behaviors are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

What is going on in the body?

In people who have ADHD, the areas of the brain that control attention use less glucose than the brains of other people. This indicates that the areas are less active. The lower activity level seems to cause inattention. No one knows for sure why these brain areas are less active.

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

No one knows the exact cause of ADHD. Most experts believe that the following factors may play a role in causing ADHD:

  • environmental toxins, such as lead
  • genetics
  • smoking or alcohol use by the mother during pregnancy
  • use of illegal drugs, such as cocaine, by the mother during pregnancy

  • Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    People with ADHD may show the following signs of inattention:

  • being easily distracted by sights, sounds, and other stimuli
  • losing or forgetting tools and materials needed for a job
  • making careless mistakes because of poor attention to details
  • Someone who has ADHD may also show signs of impulsivity and hyperactivity, such as:

  • feeling restless much of the time
  • fidgeting or squirming
  • having trouble waiting in line
  • interrupting while another person is speaking
  • moving around when quiet behavior is expected

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    Diagnosis of ADHD begins with a medical history and physical exam. The healthcare provider will look for behaviors that are typical of ADHD. In order to diagnose ADHD, the provider must determine that the behaviors have certain characteristics:

  • They are more frequent or severe than in other people of the same age group.
  • They create significant disability in at least two areas such as school, home, work, or social settings.
  • They started early in life, before the age of 7.
  • They have been constant for at least 6 months.
  • The healthcare provider may order tests to rule out other disorders. These tests may include:

  • allergy tests
  • blood and urine tests
  • cranial CT scan
  • cranial MRI

  • Prevention & Expectations

    What can be done to prevent the condition?

    Many times, ADHD cannot be prevented. The following measures may be helpful:

  • obtaining good prenatal care beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy
  • avoiding pregnancy risk factors, such as drugs, alcohol, and smoking
  • taking steps to avoid lead poisoning in the environment
  • What are the long-term effects of the condition?

    Without effective treatment, ADHD can cause serious problems at school, home, work, and social settings.

    What are the risks to others?

    ADHD is not contagious. It poses no risk to others. There may be a genetic component to the disorder.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    What are the treatments for the condition?

    Treatment for ADHD usually involves medicine along with one or more other strategies. The most common medicine for ADHD is a stimulant called methylphenidate. This medicine is known as Ritalin, Concerta, or Metadate. Other medicines used to treat ADHD include the following:

  • amphetamines, such as Adderall, Dexedrine, or Dextrostat
  • antidepressants, such as desipramine or bupropion
  • other stimulants, such as pemoline, or Cylert
  • medicines normally used to treat high blood pressure, such as clonidine
  • Medicines are often used together with other treatment strategies, such as:

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  • emotional counseling
  • practical support for activities of daily living
  • psychotherapy
  • social skills training for the individual
  • stress management training
  • support groups
  • What are the side effects of the treatments?

    Side effects from medicines can include the following:

  • headache
  • involuntary muscle movements
  • loss of appetite
  • mood changes as medicine wears off
  • sleep disorders
  • weight management problems
  • A person who is receiving any form of therapy may show an initial increase in negative behavior. This may last until new behaviors become routine.

    What happens after treatment for the condition?

    Treatment and monitoring of ADHD is lifelong.

    How is the condition monitored?

    Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.


    Author:Ann Reyes, Ph.D.
    Date Written:
    Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
    Edit Date:09/30/01
    Reviewer:Barbara Mallari, RN, BSN, PHN
    Date Reviewed:09/07/01