Types of ADHD medications

Learn more about the main categories of ADHD medication in this guide. Find out the difference between stimulants, non-stimulants, and other types of medication.

By The Understood Team

Expert reviewed by Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH

Updated August 25, 2023

An adult holds two pill containers in one hand while looking at their phone.

At a glance

  • The two main categories of ADHD medications are stimulants and non-stimulants.

  • ADHD medications work by improving the way certain parts of the brain communicate with each other.

  • All classes of ADHD medication may cause some side effects.

Medication can be an effective way to reduce the symptoms of ADHD. It can increase alertness, improve , and reduce hyperactivity. The two main categories of ADHD drugs are stimulants and non-stimulants. Here’s a brief overview of these types of ADHD medications.

Stimulant medications

Stimulants have been used to treat ADHD since the 1960s. They’re some of the most researched of all types of drugs used with people. Studies show they’re generally safe when taken at the prescribed dose and work well in about 70 to 80 percent of cases.

Stimulants work by targeting a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) called dopamine. Dopamine plays a key role in motivation. It also helps to control movement and emotional responses.

Some stimulants take effect within 30 minutes. Others may require 60 to 90 minutes. The effectiveness of a stimulant depends on a person’s sensitivity to the drug. It’s not always about their age, weight, or symptom severity.

Stimulants can be shorter acting, meaning the pills are usually taken two or three times a day. Or they can be longer acting, meaning the pills are usually taken once a day.

Below are the most common types of stimulants used to treat ADHD along with the year approved by the FDA. The medications followed by an asterisk are available in a generic form. Keep in mind that generic forms are labeled with the chemical name, not the brand name.

Methylphenidate type

Shorter acting:

  • Ritalin (1955)*
  • Focalin (2001)*
  • Methylin Oral Solution (2002)*
  • Methylin (2003)*

Longer acting:

  • Metadate-ER (1999)*
  • Concerta (2000)*
  • Metadate-CD (2001)*
  • Ritalin-LA (2002)*
  • Focalin-XR (2005)*
  • Daytrana Patch (2006)
  • Quillivant-XR (2012)
  • QuilliChew-ER (2015)
  • Aptensio-XR (2015)*
  • Comtempla XR-ODT (2017)
  • Jornay PM (2018)
  • Azstarys: dexmethylphenidate + serdexmethylphenidate (2021)*

Amphetamine type

Shorter acting:

  • Adderall (1960)*
  • ProCentra Oral Solution (2008)*
  • Evekeo (2012)
  • Zenzedi (2013)*

Longer acting:

  • Dexedrine Spansule (1976)*
  • Adderall-XR (2001)*
  • Vyvanse (2007)
  • Dyanavel-XR (2015)
  • Mydayis: mixed amphetamine salts (2017)*
  • Adzenys ER and Adzenys XR-ODT(2016)*: XR-ODT is an orally disintegrating tablet and the ER is a liquid form.
  • Xelstrym (d-amphetamine) (2022)

Anyone taking ADHD medication should work closely with a doctor. The doctor can adjust or “fine-tune” the drug, dosage, or timing. For instance, some people may need one long-acting dose followed by one shorter-acting dose.

Insurance companies often require people to use the generic forms of these medications. And for many, these generic forms work as well as the branded version. However, sometimes generic versions aren’t exactly the same as the brand names.

For those who find it hard to swallow pills, some of these medications come in liquid form. There are also capsules that can be opened and sprinkled onto spoonfuls of food like applesauce, yogurt, or ice cream. Medicated patches are also available for methylphenidate and amphetamines. One is Xelstrym (d-amphetamine). It’s a long-acting patch medication approved by the FDA in 2022.

Non-stimulant medications

Non-stimulant medications can help in some cases of ADHD. They’re used most often with people who don’t respond to stimulants or who experience side effects from them.

Unlike stimulants, non-stimulant medications work by increasing brain activity of norepinephrine. This is a neurotransmitter that, like dopamine, is linked to attention. Unlike stimulants, however, it may take four to six weeks for non-stimulants to show results.

  • Strattera (2002)*
  • Tenex (1986)*
  • Intuniv (2009)*
  • Kapvay (2009)*
  • Viloxazine (2021)*

Antihypertensive medications are sometimes also used to manage ADHD. These medications are usually prescribed to treat high blood pressure in adults. But they have been found, in some cases, to decrease ADHD symptoms, too — specifically hyperactivity.

Side effects of ADHD medication

All classes of ADHD medication have possible side effects. These are often temporary and can be helped by reducing the dose or changing the timing of the dose.

Stimulants can cause loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep, weight loss, and irritability or increased anxiety. Strattera can cause nausea, vomiting, and daytime sleepiness. Tenex, Intuniv, and Kapvay may cause sleepiness or dizziness.

With all of these drugs, side effects tend to occur only when the medication is active in the body. But most side effects of ADHD medications are not serious. Very rare or serious side effects may occur in people with pre-existing conditions.

Before using ADHD drugs, the FDA advises a full medical exam and health history review. Also, report any side effects to your doctor or prescriber. They can address questions, concerns, and guide you in finding the best medication and dosage.

Combination therapy: Medication and non-drug activities

Experts usually recommend a combination of medication and behavior therapy. This form of therapy teaches people how to replace negative habits with positive ones.

Medications can help manage ADHD symptoms, but they’re not a “cure.” If you stop taking the drugs, symptoms will return.

Starting ADHD medication involves trial and error. Finding the right drug and dosage takes time. Observe how the medication affects you and stay in touch with your doctor and clinicians.

To dive deeper, see a graphic that shows how ADHD medication works in the brain. And explore our comprehensive guide to ADHD medication. You can also connect with others and get expert support on Understood’s Wunder app.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

Key takeaways

  • It’s important to work closely with your prescriber to find the right ADHD medication and dosage.

  • Working with the prescriber to fine-tune your medication can help manage possible side effects, such as loss of appetite and trouble sleeping.

  • ADHD medications can help manage symptoms, but they don’t cure ADHD.

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