Medication can help people with ADHD focus, learn, and control their impulses. However, taking it for an extended period can cause physical and mental side effects.

According to a 2016 study, about 75–80% of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will benefit from taking stimulant medications. These drugs can reduce ADHD symptoms, leading to improved academic performance, fewer difficulties at work, and better relationships.

People should also consider the potential side effects of medication. Although long-term side effects can occur, the risk is low. Many people stop experiencing side effects once they stop taking the medication.

Nonstimulant ADHD medications are also available, but doctors most commonly prescribe stimulants. Therefore, this article will focus on stimulant medications for ADHD.

Read more to learn about the long-term effects of ADHD medication, when a person should change medication, and more.

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All medications come with possible side effects, and ADHD medication is no exception. However, although the short-term effects are well-researched, there is limited information on how the medication affects those who take it for an extended period.

The reason for this is that carrying out a controlled study for years and years is neither realistic nor ethical.

Therefore, experts need to rely on observational studies to understand the long-term side effects. They cannot control for variables in these studies, so the results will never be completely accurate.

However, they can still give people an idea of the long-term side effects of certain medications.

Effects on physical health

Most of the physical effects of stimulant medications are short-term and go away when a person stops taking the drug.

Some potential long-term physical health effects include:

Effects on development

ADHD medications may affect childhood development, although the research is not conclusive.

One of the most heavily studied areas is the potential for ADHD medications to stunt or slow growth. Stimulants can temporarily slow growth in children, whose growth does not later accelerate.

A 2021 systematic review found that the long-term use of stimulants in children correlated with a reduction in height and weight but that the overall decrease was small.

It is important to note that the medications may not directly cause growth reduction. Instead, this effect may be due to inadequate nutrition, as stimulants can decrease a person’s appetite.

Effects on mental health and behavior

Several studies have tested the effects of ADHD medications on mental health, but the results are often contradictory and inconclusive.

Anxiety is one of the most well-documented symptoms. Stimulants increase activity in the brain and central nervous system, which can cause a person to feel anxious or jittery.

Other people may appear less emotional, though. For these individuals, the medication can have a “blunting” effect, which can mimic depression.

Researchers are still unsure whether ADHD medication influences depression, but research suggests that it does reduce a person’s risk of suicide.

Although stimulant medication can cause side effects, it is also an effective way to manage ADHD symptoms. As a result, it can significantly improve a person’s quality of life.

The potential benefits include:

In some cases, a person may continue to see improvements in their symptoms even after they stop taking the medication.

An older study involving more than 500 children with ADHD compared those who took medication with those who did not. Those who took medication continued to experience improved symptoms of ADHD for up to 3 years after they stopped the treatment. After that, there were no additional benefits.

People with ADHD or their parents or caregivers should discuss the pros and cons of medication with a doctor. When choosing an ADHD medication, some questions to ask include:

  • What are the most common long-term and short-term side effects?
  • How long does the medication take to work?
  • What are the signs that the medication is working properly?
  • Are there any potential drug interactions to be aware of?
  • Are there any ways to reduce the potential side effects?

It is important to know that medication is not the only treatment option.

In fact, in children aged 4–6 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting with school and family interventions before trying medication.

A combination of treatments usually works best, so it may help to incorporate additional interventions, such as:

  • family and individual counseling
  • accommodations at work and school
  • organizational and study skills training
  • lifestyle changes, such as sticking to a strict schedule

Sometimes, a particular medication is not the right fit for an individual. In other cases, a person may take a medication for years and then find that it stops working for them.

It might be time for a person to change medications if they are:

  • getting little or no symptom relief
  • experiencing serious side effects that interfere with their quality of life
  • developing serious health problems, such as high blood pressure
  • trying a nonstimulant treatment

Stimulant medication is a standard treatment for ADHD. While it can help a person manage their symptoms and boost their quality of life, it can cause some unwanted side effects.

Many side effects are temporary, but some are associated with long-term medication use.

No single medication works well for everyone, and a person should discuss the best options for them with a doctor.