More kids, with the blessing of their doctors and parents, take drugs to improve their attention, focus, and memory, even when they don't have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But that practice is "not justifiable," according to new recommendations from the American Academy of Neurology.
The Academy looked at the ethical, legal, social, and developmental issues surrounding the use of ADHD medications, such as Ritalin (methylphenidate and generic) and Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, and generic), for children and teens who have not been diagnosed with ADHD. The authors, citing the lack of long-term safety information, urged doctors to use extreme caution in prescribing the medications in those cases.
"These are prescription medications with potentially serious side effects and should not be taken lightly," says neurologist and Consumer Reports medical adviser Orly Avitzur, M.D. "I second the authors' cautions about treating otherwise healthy children with this class of drugs."
Common side effects of stimulant drugs include decreased appetite, headache, insomnia, nervousness, and rapid heart rate. All the stimulants also carry warnings of possible growth suppression with both height and weight. Also, these drugs have been previously associated with rare reports of sudden death, stroke, and heart attack. The FDA lists these warnings on each of the ADHD drug's labels, although recent studies have not suggested such a risk.
For more on what you need to know about ADHD, read about the symptoms to watch for, our advice from parents, and expert tips on diagnosis and treatment.
Before prescribing an ADHD drug, the Academy says doctors should consider other psychological and social influences children and teens may be experiencing, including anxiety, depression, bullying, and fear of school failure. The authors also remind physicians to keep in mind their responsibility to protect children "from unnecessary treatment and potential harm." And we couldn't agree more.
If you do think your child has ADHD, know that several disorders can cause symptoms that mimic ADHD, such as depression or anxiety. Our experts strongly advise concerned parents to work with their child's doctor or psychiatrist to get a careful diagnosis, and if ADHD treatment is needed, to explore nondrug treatment strategies first. If after you and your doctor determine a drug might be beneficial, consider our Best Buy Drugs recommendation, generic methylphenidate (in either tablet, sustained-release tablet or capsule form). Our analysis shows it's less expensive than brand-name stimulants and is as safe and effective.