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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that starts in childhood and can cause high levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviours. Find out about the symptoms and how it’s treated.

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can affect your ability to concentrate. It can also make you unusually restless and act impulsively.

ADHD symptoms start in childhood and are often more noticeable during the younger years. While symptoms usually improve in adulthood, many people still experience problems as adults. Sometimes the diagnosis is missed in childhood, and adults become more aware of their symptoms as they get older.

What causes ADHD?

It’s not understood what causes ADHD exactly, but the following factors are important:

  • Family history – ADHD tends to run in families
  • Differences in the brain – Research suggests there are several differences in the function and structure of the brain in people with ADHD
  • Premature birth and low birth weight
  • Epilepsy
  • Brain damage from birth or severe head injury

ADHD symptoms

ADHD symptoms fall into two categories:

  1. Inattentiveness and hyperactivity
  2. Impulsiveness.

Not everyone has ADHD symptoms that fall into both categories, but most do. Typical symptoms can vary according to your age.

ADHD in children

Most children start showing some of the following symptoms before the age of six:

Inattentiveness:

  • Finding it hard to stick at tasks
  • Being easily distracted
  • Being forgetful
  • Losing things

Hyperactivity and impulsiveness:

  • Finding it hard to sit still, even when it’s quiet and calm around them
  • Fidgeting and moving around a lot
  • Talking a lot and interrupting people
  • Saying or doing things without thinking

ADHD in adults

Research into adult ADHD is limited, but it’s thought that around 15% of adults still experience all their symptoms after the age of 25, and 65% still experience some of them.

It’s common for adults to find their hyperactivity tendencies reduce, but their inattentiveness worsens.

Learn more about how to spot the signs of ADHD in adults.

ADHD diagnosis

It’s normal for children to behave impulsively or be restless or inattentive at times, but if you’re concerned that your child regularly shows these behaviours, talk to their teacher or carer to find out if they’ve noticed anything.

If ADHD is left undiagnosed, it can cause difficulties for children’s educational and social development and lead to related conditions, including anxiety disorder, depression and sleep problems.

A GP can’t diagnose ADHD, but they can discuss your concerns and refer your child for a specialist assessment if they think it’s needed. A range of different healthcare professionals can help, including psychiatrists, paediatricians and social workers.

There’s no simple test to diagnose ADHD, but there are strict assessment criteria. To be diagnosed with ADHD, children must have six or more symptoms of inattentiveness or hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Experts use different methods to assess your child, including physical examinations, talking to you and your child, and looking at reports from parents, teachers and doctors. They will also look at how long your child has been having ADHD symptoms and when and how they started.

ADHD diagnosis in adults

Diagnosing ADHD in adults depends on whether you had symptoms in childhood. This is because it’s not thought that ADHD develops in adulthood, so if your symptoms started recently, it’s unlikely to be ADHD.

It isn’t always easy to remember what happened in childhood. So, it can be helpful to speak to people who knew you well as a child, like a teacher or relative.

You’ll also need to show that your symptoms are having an impact on your day-to-day life as an adult. For example, if you’re having difficulties at work or with social interactions and relationships.

ADHD treatment

Usually, a combination of medication and therapy is used to treat ADHD. You may feel daunted and scared by the prospect of giving your child medication. But they’ll usually start on a low dose, which will be slowly increased if necessary, under the supervision of a specialist. If you notice any side effects, it’s essential to talk to the GP immediately.

Medication for ADHD includes:

  • Central nervous system (CNS) stimulants – To help increase brain activity in the parts of the brain that control concentration, attention and behaviour
  • Selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) – To increase a chemical in the brain that can improve concentration and help control impulses

Therapy for ADHD includes:

  • Behaviour therapy – Using behaviour management techniques, like planning structured activities and rewarding children with praise when they make small amounts of progress.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – A type of therapy that helps your child understand how their thoughts affect their behaviour and can be done individually or in a group
  • Parental support – Training may be recommended before or after your child is diagnosed to help you understand your child’s behaviour and develop the skills you need to help them
  • Other support – Psychoeducation is a therapy that helps you and your child talk about how ADHD affects your lives. Social skills training is another helpful therapy that teaches children about different social situations through role-playing

Self-care for ADHD

For many families, making some lifestyle adjustments can significantly impact the symptoms of ADHD and improve family life. Things that may help include:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet, and avoiding sugar and caffeine as much as possible, especially after mid-afternoon
  • Getting regular exercise – around 60 minutes each day is recommended
  • Limiting screen time, especially in the evening
  • Getting a good night’s sleep and following a regular sleeping pattern
  • Finding relaxation techniques, like yoga or mindfulness
  • Spending lots of time outdoors
Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: