Ask the Experts

How Safe Are ADHD Medications?

“I am agonizing about whether to start my son on ADHD medication. Someone told me that a stimulant alters the brain if you take it over an extended period. Is that true and should I worry?”

The two medications that are the first-line treatment for ADHD have been around for a long time. Amphetamine (129 years) and methylphenidate (76 years) are among the best-known drugs in medicine. Their being prescribed for so many years has allowed us to follow people who have taken these medications all day, every day, for a lifetime. No long-term problem has been identified with either.

The longest studies of stimulants are on people who used them for a sleep disorder called narcolepsy. The longest running study of people with ADHD, conducted by the Medical College Of Wisconsin, which has been ongoing since 1977, has not identified problems in the subjects in 40 years of stimulant use.

[A Parent’s Guide to ADHD Medications]

The risk comes from not taking ADHD stimulants. People with ADHD who didn’t use stimulants had a four-fold increase in severe accidents and substance-use disorders, seven times the rate of incarceration, and 10 times the rate of unplanned conceptions compared to people with ADHD who took stimulants.