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ADHD and Addiction

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a lifelong condition that causes impulsiveness and can be immensely stressful. This can lead to serious addiction problems, especially with alcohol.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a mental health disorder that can cause attention problems, impulse control problems, and hyperactivity. It does not necessarily present with all these issues in every person with ADHD.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that those who have ADHD can have their symptoms manifest in a variety of ways. For example, a person may be able to focus on schoolwork but has difficulty with inactivity. Another might be unable to focus on schoolwork but be relatively calm.

Some erroneously come to the conclusion that ADHD is a childhood disorder that one overcomes in adulthood. While it is possible to learn techniques to better deal with ADHD and to treat some of its symptoms with medication, it is a lifelong disease.

This mistake may stem from the prevalence of ADHD symptoms presenting in classroom settings as those with this diagnosis may struggle with sitting still and concentrating for an extended period of time.

Adults can still find the condition disrupts their work or social lives. Even if the symptoms seem to have only manifested in adulthood, which means they were likely just missed in childhood, you should not be embarrassed about seeking a diagnosis. The condition cannot be cured, but there are medications and techniques that can help those who live with ADHD. 

According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, some warning signs that a person might have ADHD include:

  • Overlooking or missing important details in the classroom, at work, or anywhere else
  • Problems with sustained activities, such as reading or playing games
  • Difficulty listening, even when spoken to directly
  • Trouble finishing or remembering chores, schoolwork, or important assignments
  • Easily distracted by stimuli or thoughts, such as loud noises, television in the background, or daydreaming
  • Losing things, such as pencils, paperwork, or keys

Most people have these problems occasionally.  People with ADHD have these problems frequently and to the degree that they disrupt their quality of life. Having occasional trouble with these issues does not guarantee one has ADHD. If you are concerned you might struggle with the disorder, speak to a professional. 

Some people might resist the notion that they have a mental illness out of pride or the feeling that it somehow makes them inferior. Having a mental health disorder is not something in which to be ashamed. Looking inward and feeling you might need help is not a weakness; it is often the first step to managing more serious problems.

ADHD and Addiction

Disoriented man suffering from ADHD

ADHD can produce a combination of traits that make them susceptible to drug abuse, such as impulsiveness and difficulty feeling “normal.” This might lead to difficulty succeeding in school with no explanation besides simply feeling less capable than other students. 

The feeling that one is inadequate compared to their peers can take a toll on mental health. Coupled with the national penchant of ADHD toward impulsiveness, a higher than average number of people who have ADHD turn to substance abuse.

While those with ADHD are vulnerable to abusing many types of drugs, the most common substance of choice is alcohol.

Alcohol Abuse

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), severe childhood ADHD can predict alcohol and substance abuse problems in teens. In one study, nearly twice as many teens with serious ADHD symptoms as children reported being drunk in the past six months than the control group; both groups contained 100 teenagers.

These results are not particularly surprising considering the nature of ADHD, although the severity of the group’s condition certainly played a role in their high abuse rate. 

Children and young adults with ADHD can be ostracized by peers and might seek out certain behaviors they believe will make them fit in better with those peers or be perceived more favorably. Underage drinking is not uncommon, and it is often one of the first drugs a child or teenager is exposed to.

When you factor in that alcohol is also often abused as an escape mechanism, it is clear that those with ADHD should be educated to avoid alcohol and monitored for abuse by guardians

Mixing Prescription ADHD Medications and Alcohol

Alcohol can interact with ADHD medications. Since alcohol is a depressant, stimulants can mask its effects. This can lead to drinking more significant amounts of alcohol, underestimating how much has been consumed, and this can quickly trigger dangerous and even deadly consequences. Stimulants and alcohol should never be taken together.

Drinking alcohol also raises the chances of being exposed to a stimulant’s more serious side effects. These include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • High blood pressure
  • High heart rate
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

ADHD can be treated with a wide array of drugs, but stimulants can universally interact very poorly with alcohol. Even if you are not taking a stimulant, always ask your doctor before drinking if taking any prescribed medication.

Common ADHD Medications

According to NIMH, ADHD is often treated with a number of medications.

  • Stimulants, such as Ritalin or Adderall
  • Non-stimulants, such as guanfacine
  • Antidepressants

Of these three types of medications, non-stimulants and antidepressants are not at extreme risk of abuse. Antidepressants are not approved by the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration for treating ADHD, but they are often prescribed to those with it, as they have a higher than average chance of struggling with depression.

  • Non-stimulants like guanfacine work slowly and are used in conjunction with other methods, such as therapy programs and stimulants, to help those with ADHD. Their effects don’t tend to encourage abuse. They can, however, still be dangerous if taken improperly, as they affect blood pressure. 
  • Antidepressants are generally safe if taken as prescribed. There is usually not a serious risk of addiction to these drugs. The mental status of those taking antidepressants should be monitored, as suicidal thoughts are a rare but serious potential side effect.
  • Stimulants, which most ADHD patients will be prescribed, have the biggest risk of abuse. The two most common stimulants prescribed to treat ADHD are Ritalin and Adderall.

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Ritalin and Adderall

Ritalin is one of the more abuse-prone drugs a person with ADHD might be prescribed. However, it is much more commonly abused by those who don’t have ADHD.

Some people have misconceptions about Ritalin due to its ability to help those with ADHD focus. Despite research to the contrary, Ritalin is sometimes believed to allow better focus in those without the disorder. Those without ADHD believe that if they take it, it can improve their concentration and boost their GPA.

Some are also under the false impression that Ritalin is not addictive. Ritalin is not an amphetamine but like all stimulants, it is still addictive, and it can produce physical dependence.

Ritalin can have fairly serious withdrawal and dependency issues associated with abusing it. One should never take it if not been prescribed because it is dangerous to do so. It also does not have the desired effect on those who don’t have ADHD.  

Adderall is an amphetamine, so it is at an especially high risk for abuse and addiction. It also is a fairly strong stimulant and abusing it can lead to a serious risk of heart problems.

Though ADHD medications are more commonly abused by people without the disorder, some people with ADHD attempt to abuse their prescribed medications. If you have a history of substance abuse, discuss this with your doctor. They may recommend a long-acting medication or only write short-term prescriptions, so there aren’t excess medications on hand.

How to Treat Co-Occurring ADHD and Alcohol Abuse

If a person with ADHD cannot stop abusing alcohol or any other drug, they cannot take some of the generally more effective treatments for ADHD’s symptoms, namely stimulants. It is extremely dangerous to hide alcohol consumption from your doctor simply to get prescribed stimulants, as the risks of the drug interaction are quite serious.

It’s important to seek help for alcohol abuse. Whatever the nature of alcohol abuse, it can be managed with time and professional help. 

A doctor holding a clipboard with an addiction therapy plan on it

Less than 10 percent of people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) get help for their alcohol abuse issues. The first step is reaching out for help. You can rest assured knowing that others have been where you are and recovery is possible.

As you get a handle on your alcohol abuse, more traditional options for treating ADHD will open up to you. This increases your chances of effectively managing ADHD. Once your symptoms are under control, you will be less triggered to abuse alcohol.

Therapy and similar programs that involve talking to a professional cannot cure ADHD, but they can help you learn to cope with the disorder. In a comprehensive treatment program that addresses co-occurring disorders, you can gain the skills needed to better deal with the obstacles ADHD presents. Most often, issues related to ADHD and alcohol abuse interact, so choosing a program that treats both simultaneously is preferred. 

Reach Out for Help

If you have ADHD and are concerned about either alcohol abuse or how alcohol will affect your treatment options, talk to a professional. If you frequently drink, even if you do not consider it alcohol abuse, mention it to your doctor. They can advise if you need to adjust your habits. 

If you think you might have ADHD but haven’t been medically diagnosed, talk to a healthcare provider. It’s important to get an appropriate diagnosis to ensure proper treatment. 

If alcohol abuse or any form of substance abuse co-occur with ADHD, both issues need to be effectively addressed with comprehensive treatment.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basic. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved February 2019 from

(January 2018). How Do Other Mental Disorders Coexisting With Drug Addiction Affect Drug Addiction Treatment? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 2019 from

(February 2019). Guanfacine (Oral Route). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved February 2019 from

(November 2017). Antidepressants: Selecting One That's Right For You. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved February 2019 from

Alcohol Use Disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved February 2019 from

(March 2017). Adderall. RxList. Retrieved February 2019 from

(December 2018). Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 2019 from

(August 2003). Severe Childhood ADHD May Predict Alcohol, Substance Use Problems in Teen Years. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved February 2019 from

(February 2019). Ritalin. RxList. Retrieved February 2019 from

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