What Is ADHD?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 08, 2022
What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder occurs when some people get distracted and restless much more easily. Here’s what you should know.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a set of symptoms that most of us experience at some point — when under stress, nearly anyone can become disorganized, forgetful, or irritable.

Children with ADHD can’t sit still long and become distracted from their tasks. That’s common in young children. But children with ADHD show these traits more than other children their age and have problems meeting expectations at home, at school, or with friends.

The same is true of adults. You may be diagnosed with ADHD if your symptoms are causing ongoing problems in more than one part of your life and started in early childhood. Your symptoms are likely to last a lifetime, though they may come and go in adulthood, according to one study.

An estimated 10 percent of the U.S. population qualifies for the diagnosis of ADHD, including both children and adults.


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What is ADHD?

There is no lab test to diagnose ADHD. A clinician will gather information about your symptoms over the past six months and rule out other problems.

Adults with ADHD often don’t know they have a disorder but over time may realize they have trouble meeting ordinary expectations. Because of a deficit in attention, they may miss deadlines and forget their promises, irritating employers and spouses. Hyperactivity in an adult may take the form of impulsive decisions, restlessness, or talking without thinking.

In severe cases, adults with ADHD are at more risk for job loss, legal problems, substance abuse, unstable relationships, and suicide attempts. One study with 25-year-olds found that they had a 50 percent higher chance of car crashes. They can also be high achievers, however, bringing intense focus to a particular activity, like the Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who is diagnosed with ADHD. That intense focus (to the exclusion of everything else) is called hyperfocus.

ADHD is diagnosed as one of three types: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, or combined type. A doctor will classify you based on your symptoms in the previous six months.

Inattentive type — six (or five for people over 17 years) of the following symptoms occur frequently:

  • Doesn’t pay close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in school or job tasks
  • Has problems staying focused on tasks or activities, such as during lectures, conversations, or long reading
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to (for example, seems to be elsewhere)
  • Does not follow through on instructions and doesn’t complete schoolwork, chores, or job duties (may start tasks but quickly loses focus)
  • Has problems organizing tasks and work (for instance, does not manage time well; has messy, disorganized work; misses deadlines)
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as preparing reports and completing forms
  • Often loses things needed for tasks or daily life, such as school papers, books, keys, wallet, cell phone, and eyeglasses
  • Is easily distracted
  • Forgets daily tasks, such as doing chores and running errands. Older teens and adults may forget to return phone calls, pay bills, and keep appointments.

Hyperactive-impulsive type — six (or five for people over 17 years) of the following symptoms occur frequently:

  • Fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat
  • Not able to stay seated (in classroom, workplace)
  • Runs about or climbs where it is inappropriate
  • Unable to play or do leisure activities quietly
  • Always “on the go,” as if driven by a motor
  • Talks too much
  • Blurts out an answer before a question has been finished (for instance may finish people’s sentences, can’t wait to speak in conversations)
  • Has difficulty waiting his or her turn, such as while waiting in line
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others (for instance, cuts into conversations, games or activities, or starts using other people’s things without permission). Older teens and adults may take over what others are doing.

What are the risk factors for ADHD?

  • You are at more risk if:
  • You have blood relatives with ADHD or another mental health disorder. Three out of four children with ADHD have a relative with the disorder.
  • Your mother smoked, drank alcohol, or used drugs during pregnancy.
  • You were exposed to lead, sometimes in paint and pipes in older buildings, as a child.
  • You were born prematurely.

Scientists are studying other possible contributors like brain injury, exposure to chemicals at a young age, premature delivery, and low birthweight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research does not support the idea that ADHD is caused by eating too much sugar, watching too much television, parenting, or poverty or family chaos, though they may aggravate symptoms.

How is ADHD treated?

For preschool-aged children (4 to 5 years of age) with ADHD, behavior therapy, particularly training for parents, is the first step. Medication can be added later.

Students whose ADHD impairs their learning may qualify for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or for a Section 504 plan (for children who do not require special education) under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They can benefit from specific instruction in study skills, and adaptations of teaching techniques.

Like all children, kids with ADHD will be healthier if they eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein; are active every day; limit daily screen time; and sleep as recommended for their age.

Adults need to monitor their habits as well. Stress and bad habits may make you more impulsive, moody, or forgetful. If you have the capacity to hyperfocus, ideally you’d find related work that allows you to shine. But you’ll still need to take care of other areas of your job and life.

If you’re experiencing stress with your work, family, or friends, or falling very behind on chores, seek help. Talk therapy and medication for ADHD and any other mental health condition can help enormously. The classic book “Driven to Distraction,” written by two doctors with ADHD, offers insight along with coping tools.

One tool: Don’t be too proud to lean on a personal assistant, spouse, or business partner to help you get and stay organized. Instead, be grateful and reciprocate in your areas of strength, which might be pouring startup energy into a big project on their behalf or finding creative solutions.

Medications for ADHD include:

  • Adderall XR (amphetamine)
  • Concerta (methylphenidate)
  • Dexedrine (amphetamine)
  • Evekeo (amphetamine)
  • Focalin XR (dexmethylphenidate)
  • Quillivant XR (methylphenidate)
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • Strattera (atomoxetine hydrochloride)


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July 08, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN