Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

Some people with ADHD have fewer symptoms as they age, but some adults continue to have major symptoms that interfere with daily functioning. In adults, the main features of ADHD may include difficulty paying attention, impulsiveness and restlessness. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Many adults with ADHD aren't aware they have it — they just know that everyday tasks can be a challenge. Adults with ADHD may find it difficult to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger.

Adult ADHD symptoms may include:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing
  • Poor time management skills
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Trouble multitasking
  • Excessive activity or restlessness
  • Poor planning
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Problems following through and completing tasks
  • Hot temper
  • Trouble coping with stress

What's normal and what's ADHD?

Almost everyone has some symptoms similar to ADHD at some point in their lives. If your difficulties are recent or occurred only occasionally in the past, you probably don't have ADHD. ADHD is diagnosed only when symptoms are severe enough to cause ongoing problems in more than one area of your life. These persistent and disruptive symptoms can be traced back to early childhood.

Diagnosis of ADHD in adults can be difficult because certain ADHD symptoms are similar to those caused by other conditions, such as anxiety or mood disorders. And many adults with ADHD also have at least one other mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.

When to see a doctor

If any of the symptoms listed above continually disrupt your life, talk to your doctor about whether you might have ADHD.

Different types of health care professionals may diagnose and supervise treatment for ADHD. Seek a provider who has training and experience in caring for adults with ADHD.

Causes

While the exact cause of ADHD is not clear, research efforts continue. Factors that may be involved in the development of ADHD include:

  • Genetics. ADHD can run in families, and studies indicate that genes may play a role.
  • Environment. Certain environmental factors also may increase risk, such as lead exposure as a child.
  • Problems during development. Problems with the central nervous system at key moments in development may play a role.

Risk factors

Risk of ADHD may increase if:

  • You have blood relatives, such as a parent or sibling, with ADHD or another mental health disorder
  • Your mother smoked, drank alcohol or used drugs during pregnancy
  • As a child, you were exposed to environmental toxins — such as lead, found mainly in paint and pipes in older buildings
  • You were born prematurely

Complications

ADHD can make life difficult for you. ADHD has been linked to:

  • Poor school or work performance
  • Unemployment
  • Trouble with the law
  • Alcohol or other substance abuse
  • Frequent car accidents or other accidents
  • Unstable relationships
  • Poor physical and mental health
  • Poor self-image
  • Suicide attempts

Coexisting conditions

Although ADHD doesn't cause other psychological or developmental problems, other disorders often occur along with ADHD and make treatment more challenging. These include:

  • Mood disorders. Many adults with ADHD also have depression, bipolar disorder or another mood disorder. While mood problems aren't necessarily due directly to ADHD, a repeated pattern of failures and frustrations due to ADHD can worsen depression.
  • Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders occur fairly often in adults with ADHD. Anxiety disorders may cause overwhelming worry, nervousness and other symptoms. Anxiety can be made worse by the challenges and setbacks caused by ADHD.
  • Other psychiatric disorders. Adults with ADHD are at increased risk of other psychiatric disorders, such as personality disorders, intermittent explosive disorder and substance abuse.
  • Learning disabilities. Adults with ADHD may score lower on academic testing than would be expected for their age, intelligence and education. Learning disabilities can include problems with understanding and communicating.
March 31, 2016
References
  1. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5. 5th ed. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. http://www.psychiatryonline.org. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  2. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml. Accessed Jan. 7, 2016.
  3. Adult ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder). Anxiety and Depression Association of America. http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/adult-adhd. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  4. Barbaresi WJ, et al. Mortality, ADHD, and psychosocial adversity in adults with childhood ADHD: A prospective study. Pediatrics. 2013;131:637.
  5. ADHD. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/ADHD/Overview. Accessed Jan. 5, 2016.
  6. Barbaresi WJ, et al. Comparing methods to determine persistence of childhood ADHD into adulthood: A prospective population-based study. Journal of Attention Disorders. In press. Accessed Jan. 27, 2016.
  7. Clarke PE. ADHD: Not just for kids. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/SpecialFeatures/ucm289089.htm. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  8. Smith BL. Bringing life into focus. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/03/adult-adhd.aspx. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  9. Bukstein O. Pharmacotherapy for adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  10. Solanto MV. Psychotherapy for adult ADHD. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  11. Bukstein O. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical features, course, assessment, and diagnosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  12. Bueno VF, et al. Mindfulness meditation improves mood, quality of life, and attention in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. BioMed Research International. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2015/962857/. Accessed Jan. 18, 2016.
  13. Bhagia J (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 22, 2016.
  14. Philipsen A, et al. Effects of group psychotherapy, individual counseling, methylphenidate, and placebo in the treatment of adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72:1199.