Child Development

What Are the Side Effects of ADHD Medication?

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Almost every medication comes with potential side effects. This includes medication used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. 

It’s completely normal for parents to worry about the potential risks and side effects of any medication their child takes. Sometimes, having correct and up-to-date information can help dispel concerns.

In this article, we’ll explain all of the most common side effects of ADHD medications, as well as when to talk to your child’s doctor.

Types of ADHD medication

Each ADHD medication comes with different side effects. ADHD medication can generally be split into two types: stimulant medication and non-stimulant medication.

Stimulants are the most common, and most effective, type of ADHD medication. The main types of stimulant medications include:

  • Amphetamine
  • Methylphenidate

Both types are effective. People usually tolerate stimulants well when they’re taken responsibly as prescribed. But, like any medication, stimulants do come with some side effects. 

ADHD medication that is non-stimulant refers to a large category that includes any ADHD medication that isn’t a stimulant. Two non-stimulant ADHD medications, Strattera (atomoxetine) and Qelbree, have been developed and FDA-approved specifically for treating ADHD in children. 

Other non-stimulant medications that are used to treat ADHD include antidepressants and blood pressure medications.

Many parents worry about the side effects of stimulant medications, but it is a mistake to assume that non-stimulants are free of side effects. Every medication comes with potential side effects, and some people find that the side effects of certain non-stimulants are more uncomfortable than the effects of stimulants. It’s all about what works for each individual person.

In this article, we’ll be discussing the side effects of kid's stimulant medication, because most children who take medication for ADHD take stimulants. If you’re concerned about the side effects of a specific medication that you’re considering, talk to your child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist.

ADHD medication side effects

These are some of the most common side effects that are associated with stimulant ADHD medications. This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. If you notice your child having new symptoms, and you think they may be a result of medication, let their prescriber know right away.

Mood changes

Stimulant medication can sometimes cause mood changes in a small percentage of children who take it.  

Sometimes, the mood change could look like irritability. You might notice that your child is snappier than usual or has mood swings. Mood swings can also be a feature of ADHD itself, and many kids with ADHD also suffer from depression and other co-occurring mood disorders. So it’s important to distinguish what exactly is causing the mood changes.

Some kids enter into an empty or depressed mood when taking stimulant medications. This is what’s sometimes referred to as the “zombie effect.” You might notice that your child seems spaced out, or they might tell you that they aren’t feeling like themselves.

Sometimes, these side effects go away with time. If they don’t, it could be a sign that your child’s dosage is too high. Your child should not feel like a zombie on ADHD medication; this isn’t a “normal” consequence of taking these drugs.

If you’re noticing mood changes in your child, then talk to your prescriber. They can adjust the dosage or try another medication.

Trouble sleeping

One of the most commonly reported side effects of stimulant medications is insomnia, or trouble sleeping. Stimulants wake up the central nervous system; caffeine is another, more widely-used, type of stimulant substance.

Although stimulants don’t (or shouldn’t) make kids with ADHD feel “wired” or more hyperactive during the day, it can sometimes keep them up at night. But ADHD symptoms themselves are also known to get in the way of restful sleep; the overactive ADHD mind can keep kids awake as well.

It may be necessary to balance the benefits of taking stimulants for sleep vs. its detriments. In general, research has found that around 30% of kids with ADHD experience insomnia when they take stimulants compared with 10% of kids with untreated ADHD.

If stimulants are causing insomnia for your child, but helping them otherwise, then there are practices you can implement to help them get more restful sleep at night.

Decreased appetite

Stimulants have also been known to decrease or loss of appetite in both adults and kids. This effect, combined with an increased metabolism (another potential effect of stimulants), can lead to weight loss in some children. However, in general, kids with ADHD are more likely to be overweight than underweight.

It’s important to keep in mind that decreased appetite and general upset stomach are also side effects of Strattera and Qelbree, which are non-stimulant ADHD medications. In other words, you may not be able to avoid these effects simply by switching to a non-stimulant.

Stomach problems caused by ADHD medication can sometimes be avoided by taking the medications shortly before or after a meal. If you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits, have a conversation with your prescriber.

Delayed growth

This side effect is one that’s especially scary for parents: There is a popular theory that stimulant medications can cause delayed growth in some kids.

You can breathe easy, because most experts agree that this theory isn’t true. There has been some evidence that kids can miss growth spurts while taking stimulants.

Researchers have found that there may be very few children on stimulants who are shorter than average (possibly because of weight loss). But even in the few cases that this does happen, the children make up for their lack of growth during puberty.

In general, there is little to no evidence to suggest that taking stimulant medication as a child affects height as an adult. If your child seems shorter than their peers and you’re concerned, talk to your prescriber about taking a temporary “vacation” from medication.

Rebound effect

Many parents notice that, as the effects of stimulant medications start to wear off, their child becomes even more hyperactive, irritable, and distracted than ever. Experts call this the “rebound effect.” 

It doesn’t happen when the medication enters the body like more other side effects — rather, it’s a sign of medication leaving the body. Different people metabolize medication at different rates. If your child metabolizes ADHD medication quickly, then it can lead to a sharp decline in stimulant levels towards the end of a dose. In other words, it’s a type of withdrawal. 

The rebound effect usually happens in the evening, especially if the child takes medication in the morning. Parents tend to observe the rebound effect around an hour before the dose’s time runs out.

If you’re noticing the rebound effect in your child, talk to your prescriber about the possibility of giving them them a small, short-acting dose of medication right before the previous dose is about to stop working. Your prescriber may also consider changing the dosage or the type of medication if the rebound effect is getting in the way of your child’s functioning.

Nausea and headaches

Nausea, upset stomach stomach, vomiting, and headaches are all common side effects of different types of ADHD medications, not just stimulants. These side effects are usually mild, and go away as kids get more adjusted to medication.

If it doesn’t go away, then talk to your prescriber. They could suggest helpful tips like taking medication at mealtime.

Risks and precautions

There are certain risks and precautions to consider before your child takes any ADHD medication, whether they are stimulants or non-stimulants. Each type of ADHD medication comes with its own potential risks and drug interactions that you need to be mindful of. Your prescriber should talk this over with you before your child starts on any new medication.

In general, some of the more serious risks associated with ADHD medications include:

  • Heart problems, including high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat
  • Increased risk of psychosis
  • Anxiety
  • Abuse and addiction
  • Suicidal ideation

We don’t have solid evidence on the long-term effects of taking ADHD medication. This is partly because it’s unrealistic (and unethical) to run a randomized controlled trial for the decades it would take to be able to study these effects.  In general, however, experts say that ADHD medications are safe, and can improve quality-of-life and other outcomes for people with ADHD.

When to talk to your doctor

Don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s doctor if you notice any new symptoms or strange signs after they’ve started to take ADHD medication. It could be possible that these effects are normal and will wear off with time; it could be that the dosage, or even the prescription itself, needs to be changed.

Both you and your child’s doctor want what’s best for your child. Uncomfortable side effects are usually a sign that something needs adjustment, and they shouldn’t be tolerated in the long-term. 

Takeaway

ADHD medications, including stimulants and non-stimulants, come with side effects — just like any other type of medication. Usually, these side effects are temporary. If they don’t go away, it could be a sign that the dosage needs to be adjusted or that this particular medication doesn’t work for your child.

In general, however, ADHD medication is safe and effective, and can vastly improve your child’s quality-of-life. Don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s doctor about any concerns you may have.

This article is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for individual medical or mental health advice. Please consult with your or your child's prescribing doctor before changing, starting, or stopping a medication routine.