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ADHD Drugs Safe, Experts Say

Parents of kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face a tough choice: whether to medicate their children or not. And this affects a lot of families. Experts say 6 to 8 percent of school-age kids have ADHD.

It's a touchy subject, and it got even thornier after recent reports linked popular ADHD drugs to increased health risks, especially risks for heart problems.

But the top experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as at other professional groups for ADHD and cardiology experts, say the drugs are safe. These experts have found that heart risks are not increased by treating ADHD any more than the risks of the same rare heart problems in children without ADHD who are not taking ADHD medications.

Medications to treat ADHD are 80 to 90 percent effective, and reports of major problems are extremely rare.

Side effects

Some common side effects from ADHD drugs include:

  • A drop in appetite

  • Sleep problems

  • Trouble concentrating

It's far, far less common for a child to become out of control from the drugs, and hallucinations are reported to be quite rare.

Reports of heart trouble were widely misinterpreted. Cardiac problems from the drugs are extraordinarily rare, and those cases in which it was reported were in children who had pre-existing heart trouble. These were kids who already had underlying heart defects. Several studies, including one recently published that was supported by the FDA, showed there was no difference in the risk of rare heart problems in kids treated for ADHD and kids who did not have ADHD and were not receiving stimulant medications. 

So what's a parent to do? Have careful discussions with your child's pediatrician.

Here's what to cover:

  • Is it possible that medications might help? How likely is it?

  • If your child uses medication, what is the right dose to start with?

  • How closely should your child be monitored? How often should you see or call the pediatrician?

  • What is the role of diet, counseling, or behavioral therapy? They may offer help with or without medication.

  • How can you get teachers and other school officials to help?

What to watch for

If your child is taking an ADHD drug, watch for any sudden or severe changes: 

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Poor appetite

  • A marked worsening of behavior

  • Hallucinations

If you see these, call the doctor. Treating ADHD takes teamwork. A child's parents, teacher and doctor must be on the same page.