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ADHD and Addiction: Relationship, Signs, and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Individuals who have ADHD may be more likely to abuse alcohol or other substances as a way of coping with ADHD symptoms like impulsivity or lack of focus.

Continue reading to learn more about the relationship between ADHD and addiction, including their signs and treatment options.

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD, is a behavior condition characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and, in some cases, hyperactivity. It is typical for children to have difficulty focusing and behaving at times. However, these behaviors do not just disappear in children with ADHD. The symptoms persist and can be severe, making it difficult to interact with friends, family, and others. 

It is important to note that while children with ADHD may be disruptive, they are not usually violent. When children exhibit a trend of more aggressive or violent actions, such as stealing or harming others, they may have another mental health issue called conduct disorder.

ADHD is typically diagnosed in childhood and frequently lasts into adulthood.

Based on 2016 to 2019 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated that 9.8% of children have received an ADHD diagnosis. On the other hand, the National Comorbidity Survey Replication determined that 4.4% of adults in America have ADHD.

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The Different Types of ADHD

Each person may exhibit their symptoms in a different way. The following are the three types of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms:

Symptoms of distractibility and inattention

  • Easily distracted
  • Short attention span for age
  • Difficulty attending to details
  • Difficulty listening to others
  • Poor study skills with respect to the age
  • Poor organizational skills with respect to the age
  • Forgetfulness

Symptoms of hyperactivity

  • Have issues staying seated
  • Squirms or fidgets with hands when seated; excessive fidgeting
  • Seems to be moving constantly; occasionally climbs or runs with no apparent purpose other than motion
  • Often forgets or loses stuff
  • Clumsiness
  • Talks too much
  • Has trouble concentrating during quiet activities
  • Has a lack of focus; moves from one activity to another without completing any of them

Symptoms of impulsivity

  • Interrupts people a lot
  • Frequently takes risks and acts without thinking first
  • Has trouble waiting for their turn in social games or at school
  • Tends to respond immediately rather than waiting to be questioned or called upon

How is ADHD Diagnosed?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition of the American Psychiatric Association, is used by medical professionals to establish an ADHD diagnosis. This diagnostic criterion ensures that patients with ADHD are properly identified and treated. Applying the same criteria among the general population across local areas can also help identify how many children have ADHD and how it affects public health and the general population.

DSM-5 Criteria for ADHD

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To diagnose ADHD in adults and adolescents aged 17 years or above, only 5 symptoms are required, as opposed to the 6 required in younger children. In older ages, symptoms could appear differently. Adult hyperactivity, for instance, may manifest as severe restlessness or as the tendency to occupy and tire out others with one’s activity.

Causes & Risk Factors of ADHD

Experts are unable to identify the exact causes of ADHD. Despite mounting evidence that genetics play a role in ADHD and the association of numerous genes with the condition, no single gene or set of genes has been pinpointed as the disorder’s root cause. However, there is proof that the brains of children with ADHD are anatomically different compared to children without the disorder. For instance, children with ADHD exhibit varied brain area activity during specific activities and have lesser grey and white brain matter volume.

In addition to genetics, researchers are looking at several causes and risk factors, such as:

  • Brain injury
  • Low birth weight
  • Exposure to environmental hazards, such as lead, during pregnancy or at a young age
  • Premature delivery
  • Smoking and drinking during pregnancy

ADHD in Adults

ADHD can continue until adulthood and can sometimes go undiagnosed. The symptoms may make functioning at work, at home, or relationships difficult. In older ages, symptoms may emerge differently. For instance, hyperactivity may manifest as severe restlessness. Adults with ADHD also struggle to prioritize and concentrate, which can result in missed deadlines, canceled meetings, and neglected social activities. The inability to restrain impulses can cause a variety of behaviors, such as impatience when driving in traffic or waiting in line. It can also cause mood swings and angry outbursts. These symptoms may worsen as the demands and responsibilities of adulthood rise.

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Causes & Risk Factors of Addiction

Addiction may affect people of various ages and beliefs. It can be difficult to understand why some individuals are more prone to it than others. The likelihood that you may develop an alcohol or drug addiction depends on various factors. Your age, medical history, genetics, and environment all have an impact. Moreover, some drug types and use methods are more addictive than others.

Environmental Risk Factors

Your risk of addiction may increase due to environmental factors. Lack of parental engagement might cause children and teenagers to take more risks and abuse substances, even engaging in alcohol and drug experimentation. Young adults who experience parental abuse or neglect may also turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

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Peer pressure is another environmental risk factor for substance abuse, particularly among young adults. The pressure to conform with friends can create a culture of experimentation with recreational drugs, ultimately leading to addiction, even when it’s not overtly aggressive.

Genetic Risk Factors

Addiction is not a result of a lack of principles or willpower. When you have an addiction, your brain’s chemical processes change significantly compared to a person who doesn’t have it. 

Another significant risk factor for substance abuse is genetics. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, genetics can account for up to 50% of your chance of developing an addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other substances. You are more prone to develop substance and alcohol abuse if you have family members who have it.

Early Use

The age at which you start engaging in the behavior is another risk factor for substance abuse. Young individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 were found to be the most likely to struggle with both alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, according to a survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 

When you exhibit addictive behavior as a child while your brain is still developing, it can increase your risk of experiencing mental disorders or psychiatric disorders as you age.

Dual Diagnosis

If you suffer from substance abuse and a mental health disorder, such as ADHD or anxiety disorders, you are said to have a dual diagnosis.

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Underlying mental health conditions may increase your risk of substance abuse. That said, substance abuse can make other health problems worse. This sets up a vicious cycle where your addiction tends to advance swiftly and has negative effects. You may believe that alcohol or drugs lessen your ADHD symptoms. However, substance abuse will possibly worsen matters in the long term.

Adults with ADHD Exhibit Addictive Behaviors

Addictive Behaviors and ADHD

In general, individuals with ADHD struggle to control their urges and tend to engage in risky behavior. Some people find themselves resorting to drugs, cigarette smoking, or alcohol as a coping mechanism due to the difficulties and frustrations that come with living with ADHD. What may begin as a simple attempt to dilute activities or reduce surrounding tension or anxiety might grow into alcohol and substance misuse.

A person with ADHD has difficulty regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine helps control emotional responses and generate pleasure and reward. It may be tempting to turn to alternative methods of achieving such sensations, such as alcohol and substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, whenever this chemical process is impaired.

Addictive Behaviors with Chemicals

Individuals with ADHD are more prone to be impulsive and to experience behavioral issues, both of which can lead to substance and alcohol dependence.

  • Stimulants

The most popular prescription medicine doctors use to treat ADHD is stimulants. Contrary to its name, stimulants don’t function by making you more stimulated. Instead, they function by raising the amounts of two neurotransmitters, dopamine, and norepinephrine, in your brain. These neurotransmitters are crucial in your capacity to pay attention, think, and remain motivated. As stimulants are classified as controlled substances, they may be misused or lead to substance use disorders.

  • Alcohol

The impaired judgment brought on by alcohol may make ADHD symptoms like impulsive behaviors and difficulty focusing worse. Long-term alcohol consumption is also linked to speech, memory, decision-making, and cognition issues. These outcomes could exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD.

  • Marijuana

Some individuals with ADHD think that marijuana can help them control their hyperactivity. People with ADHD who are considering marijuana should be advised that regular use may impair attention, memory, and activity. In other words, consistent marijuana use may increase the likelihood of forgetfulness, procrastination, and distractibility issues.

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  • Opiates

Heroin, morphine, and codeine are opiate drugs. The abuse of opioid prescription drugs (Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet), frequently prescribed as painkillers, has become a nationwide epidemic in recent years and has resulted in thousands of fatalities. They are extremely addictive medications and fatal when overdosed.

  • Sedatives and Tranquilizers

Prescribed sedatives and tranquilizers are central nervous system depressants. They are widely used for anxiety, stress, and sleep disorders, and their impact on the brain is essentially the opposite of stimulant drugs. Some people with ADHD use sedatives to aid with their sleep problems. When recommended as sleep aids, long-term use can develop into addiction.

  • Hallucinogens

LSD, mescaline, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), PCP, and DMT are some of the most common hallucinogens. These potent, mind-altering substances can cause hallucinations, extreme mood swings, and alterations in how one perceives reality.

Hallucinogens may exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD. A person with ADHD is more prone to act impulsively and practice poor judgment in certain situations.

Behavioral Addictions and ADHD

Addictions to behavior receive less attention than addictions to substances. Nonetheless, they may seriously disrupt people’s lives, like any addiction. 

  • Internet Addictions

Individuals with ADHD spend a lot of time doing activities that interest them. To activate certain areas of their brains, persons with ADHD seek more immediate rewards and engage in other sensation-seeking behaviors. Smart technology, social media, and gaming applications provide these kinds of instant rewards.

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  • Gambling Addictions

Gambling is often the result of impulsivity. ADHD and gambling are more closely related to impulsivity—more precisely, poor decision-making—than other symptoms, such as hyperactivity and trouble concentrating. Someone with ADHD who engages in gambling may also suffer from boredom and need stimulation.

  • Shopping Addictions

People with ADHD, who suffer from impulsive actions, poor planning abilities, and other executive dysfunctions, are prone to impulsive spending. Impulsive shopping also results in the quick boost of dopamine that people with ADHD continuously crave.

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  • Sexual Addictions

Sexual stimulation causes endorphins to be released and neurotransmitters to be mobilized in the brain. This creates a sensation of calmness that lowers the restlessness frequently characterized by ADHD. Promiscuity and sexual addiction, however, can be sources of conflict in relationships.

Due to impulsive issues, some persons with ADHD may engage in sexual addiction and risky sexual behaviors.

Addictive Behaviors with Food

Impulsive people also eat on impulse. Many individuals with ADHD have obesity as a result of impulsive eating. Individuals with ADHD often find it difficult to comprehend what others are saying, and they often find it challenging to understand what their bodies are trying to tell them. Many confuse being upset or bored with hunger and turn to binge eating to relieve their boredom.

ADHD Personality Traits That May Lead to Addiction

Impulsivity, reward-seeking, anxiety, and negative affect are some personality traits linked to ADHD and addiction. 

According to research, people with ADHD and substance use disorders may share similar anatomical brain characteristics, such as a smaller frontal cortex and cerebellum. The study also shows those with nicotine addiction and ADHD have reported improved focus and executive function. In addition, it revealed that children who start treatment for ADHD earlier have a lower risk of developing substance use problems than those who start treatment later.

Is ADHD Medication Addictive?

The risk of becoming addicted to ADHD medications significantly decreases when a person takes the therapeutic amounts prescribed by a medical professional.

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For people with ADHD, doctors may recommend ADHD meds like methylphenidate (Ritalin) or dextroamphetamine (Adderall). Taking ADHD medication supports emotional regulation and focus. People using them under a doctor’s supervision shouldn’t cause addiction or substance abuse. But, if they take them for non-medical purposes, including attempting to remain awake while working or studying, they run the danger of addiction or drug abuse.

Seeking Help for Addiction

Living with ADHD can make daily living difficult, but certain practices help. You should speak with your doctor if you or someone you know is struggling to manage ADHD. Likewise, if you are battling addiction, the best chance of preventing or treating addiction is to get assistance as soon as you can before the problem worsens.

When a person has a co-occurring ADHD and addiction, they must attend ADHD dual diagnosis programs that address both their drug use and mental health issues. These programs can assist them in overcoming addiction and enhancing their quality of life while managing their ADHD. With these programs, people may learn how to live a desirable and healthy life without resorting to drugs to treat the symptoms of ADHD.

Design for Recovery, a sober living home in Los Angeles, we’re dedicated to supporting those with co-occurring mental health conditions and substance use disorders. When the co-occurring disorder and withdrawal symptoms are being addressed concurrently, recovery rates become higher. The effective way to deal with co-occurring disorders is through a holistic and individual-focused approach, which we employ in our dual diagnosis program.

If you or your loved one is battling with ADHD and substance abuse, you may contact us right now to understand our program better.

Frequently Asked Questions

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According to research, persons with ADHD are two to three times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs than people without the disorder.

Because of the challenges and frustrations associated with having ADHD symptoms (trouble focusing and impulsive behavior), some people turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.

ADHD and substance abuse are linked by a number of variables, including:

The characteristics of ADHD, such as poor impulse control, poor judgment, and the ensuing difficulties in school, may make someone more likely to start using drugs.
Individuals with ADHD may be tempted to use alcohol or illicit drugs to “self-medicate” or address their own symptoms.
ADHD and the likelihood of substance use disorder may be genetically linked.
Why are people with ADHD more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol?

Individuals with ADHD have difficulty regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for producing pleasure and reward and regulating emotional response. When the physiological mechanism is not functioning properly, people with ADHD may feel compelled to seek pleasure and reward through other methods. These methods may include drug and alcohol addiction and other addictive behaviors.

Research shows that stimulant drugs do not lead to addiction or substance misuse if used under a doctor’s supervision within therapeutic doses. They only incur the risk of addiction if people with ADHD use them for non-medical reasons, such as trying to stay awake while working or studying.

No study has yet demonstrated that stimulant medication increases the rates of substance use problems. However, stimulant drugs can be abused, misused, or given to others. 

Still, Ritalin and other stimulants used to treat ADHD often come in lower dosages and have longer half-lives, reducing the risk of addiction.

It’s essential to remember that not everyone with ADHD will have alcohol or drug abuse problems. Those who do experience problems are advised by doctors to use non-stimulant drugs, such as atomoxetine (Strattera), clonidine (Kapvay), and viloxazine (Qelbree). ​​When these medications are given in a controlled manner over an extended period, they can be helpful and lessen the chances of developing physical dependence or misusing them.

A multidisciplinary strategy, including counseling and medications, is necessary to treat ADHD, whether there is a comorbid substance use problem or not. The most common therapeutic techniques for ADHD with concurrent substance use disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, family therapy, ADHD group therapy, and psychotherapy.

Self-medication without a doctor’s direction or misusing ADHD drugs can have negative effects or be fatal. It may result in strokes, heart attacks, or seizures. It is also important to note that taking ADHD drugs with alcohol can exacerbate adverse effects and raise the possibility of alcohol poisoning.

Always use drugs as directed by a medical professional and at the recommended dosage. If you have medication concerns, discussing them with your healthcare provider is best.

Design for Recovery can assist you or your loved one with questions about dual-diagnosis programs for ADHD and addiction problems. Design for Recovery sober living homes has certified mental health experts that can assist you in overcoming substance misuse while dealing with ADHD.

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  3. CDC. (2022, August 9). Symptoms and Diagnosis of ADHD.
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  5. Pliszka, S. (2007). Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Home. Volume 46, issue 7, p894-921.
  6. CDC. (2022, August 9). What is ADHD?
  7. NIDA. (2019, August 5). Genetics and Epigenetics of Addiction DrugFacts
  8. NIDA. (2008). Alcohol and Other Drugs.
  9. Davis, C., Cohen, A., Davids, M., & Rabindranath, A. (2015). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in relation to addictive behaviors: a moderated-mediation analysis of personality-risk factors and sex. Frontiers in psychiatry, 6, 47.
  10. Zulauf, C. A., Sprich, S. E., Safren, S. A., & Wilens, T. E. (2014). The complicated relationship between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance use disorders. Current psychiatry reports, 16(3), 436.
  11. ADHD Awareness Month Coalition. (n.d.) FACT: The therapeutic use of stimulant medications for ADHD prevents addiction. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from
  12. Lee, S. S., Humphreys, K. L., Flory, K., Liu, R., & Glass, K. (2011). Prospective association of childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use and abuse/dependence: a meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 31(3), 328–341.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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