Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
June 22, 2021
Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Many people use the terms ADHD and ADD interchangeably. ADHD vs ADD, what is the difference? You might experience being a dreamer, or maybe you have difficulty sitting still. So, your question might be, “do I have ADHD or ADD?

The ADHD Timeline

ADHD or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder was first described in 1968. The DSM (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) described it as a childhood disorder. The American Psychiatric Association only recognized symptoms of excessive motor activity. 

In 1980, doctors noticed that this disorder comes with difficulties in sustained mental effort. They also noticed an impulsivity and hyperactivity component. They renamed the disorder ADD or “Attention Deficit Disorder.” 

Only 7 years later, the American Psychiatric Association changed its mind. They introduced Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They believed that the disorder always included hyperactive symptoms. 

In 1994, the American Psychiatric Society introduced subtypes. This as symptoms can vary from person to person. The name of the disorder remained the same.  From this point on, everyone with ADD symptoms will be diagnosed with ADHD. 

The most recent change in 2013 was changing subtypes to presentations. The research concluded that people were not bound for their whole life to one type of ADHD. 

As you age, your ADHD might present itself with less hyperactive symptoms. At one point, you were bouncing off the walls as a child; now, you might present as a functional adult that can sit still. Yet your symptoms are still unorganized and inattentive. 

“My teacher used to tell me to sit still. They would make jokes about taping me to my chair. Luckily, I can sit at my desk with ease today. Yet, my boss notices that I have difficulty finding structure in my work. They ask me frequently to get to the point.”

ADHD vs ADD, What’s the Difference in Symptoms?

A mental health sign on a laptop screen illustrating adhd vs add.

People tend to use these terms interchangeably, and that can lead to confusion. Today, they are not recognized as separate conditions. ADD falls under the ADHD umbrella. Historically speaking, it refers to what we now know as the inattentive presentation. Basically, ADD and ADHD is the same diagnosis, but you present as a primarily inattentive type.

Only a medical professional can give you an ADHD diagnosis and presentation type.  You might have a higher chance of going undiagnosed or untreated when you don’t show many hyperactive symptoms. Learn more about three types of ADHD here: 

What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of many neurodevelopmental disorders. Ever since the medical community has come to the conclusion that ADHD is actually real, diagnosing ad treating it has become an easier process. It used to be known as ADD. There are three presentations of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder:

  • predominantly inattentive ADHD
  • predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD
  • or Combined

Apart from the frequency that these behaviors occur, ADHD can be tricky to diagnose. The specific symptoms vary so much between individuals making diagnosis difficult.

One in every 10 children and adolescents in the U.S has the diagnosis ADHD. This is according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This statistic makes ADHD one of the most common childhood disorders. Today, we understand that adults can still suffer from this disorder too.

What Is Inattentive ADHD? 

Inattentive subtypes are tricky to recognize. People with this form of ADHD often experience forgetfulness, trouble listening, and loss of focus.  

“What if my partner doesn’t seem hyperactive?” 

“My coworker makes careless mistakes. It seems like he doesn’t care. ”

If someone is diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, there won’t be many physical signs like fidgeting or constant movement. But in some cases, those people are still very active inside. They might constantly daydream at work and find it difficult to sit still. 

To diagnose primarily inattentive ADHD, or what some call ADD, you need to experience at least five of the following symptoms:

  • You have trouble paying attention, or you make careless mistakes
  • You have difficulty sustaining attention
  • It seems that you don’t listen when spoken to
  • You tend to not listen to instructions and after failing to finish projects.
  • You might have difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • You often avoid, dislike, or are reluctant to engage in tasks that need sustained mental effort
  • You often lose things necessary for tasks or activities
  • You get easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • You seem to forget daily activities easily

Someone might interpret your behavior as lazy or like you display apathetic behavior. They might think you just don’t care. But, this is part of your ADHD struggle and how your brain works. 

What Is Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD? 

Chalkboard illustration for an adhd mind.

People with this presentation of ADHD tend to have ADHD’s stereotypical traits. This person talks a lot, keeps interrupting you, and seems to have the energy to climb mountains. They usually can’t sit still either. 

“My kid keeps jumping on the sofa. He destroys all toys because he is too wild.”

”My girlfriend talks too much. She also tends to be very loud and does not notice it. She has so much energy; I can’t keep up anymore.”

An adult needs at least 5 of the following symptoms for this presentation.

  • You fidget and squirm in your seat.
  • You can’t keep seated.
  • You feel restless and climbs on things/ runs about
  • Engaging in quiet activities or staying quiet is difficult for you
  • You always seem “on the go” or “driven by a motor.”
  • You talk way too much.
  • You tend to blurt out the answers before the questions have been completed.
  • You have difficulty waiting in line or for your turn.
  • You tend to interrupt or intrude on others (e.g., butts into conversations or difficulty playing).

What Is Combined Type ADHD? 

But what if you are easily distracted and also show impulsive behaviors. You might have trouble paying attention and also show impulsive behaviors. The combined type of ADHD occurs when your symptoms present mixed. 

What are the other criteria to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Showing symptoms alone is not enough to be diagnosed. You also need to fulfill three criteria. A certified mental health provider can decide to give you this diagnosis. These are the only people who can provide medical advice. Your family doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist might do this. Licensing depends on your state or country. 

ADHD Symptoms

To be ADHD diagnosed, a child should suffer from six or more symptoms before this was the same case for adolescents and adults. The DSM-5 changed this criterion for them, however. Older adolescents and adults should present with five or more symptoms.

Age of Onset

Before 2013 the DSM expected you to show symptoms before 7 years old.  

Recently these criteria changed. Today they check for inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive behaviors before 12 years

Pervasiveness

Before, there were hard criteria for evidence of impairment. Today it is enough to show evidence of symptoms in many settings. You should experience the symptoms at school, work, and in your social life (with friends or family). It can’t just be at school, for example; that might indicate a location-dependent problem. 

Impairment

A medical diagnosis implies a significant impairment in comparison to others. Now it is enough to show that your symptoms have an impact on the quality of your life. 

These issues should influence your quality of life in those settings where you experience the symptoms.

Exclusion

Your medic will check if they can’t explain your symptoms in any other way. Some ADHD behavior could be because of defiance or hostility. ADHD will not be diagnosed when that is the case. 

Psychiatric conditions or mood disorders might also explain your symptoms. Your specialist will discuss this with you. If that is the case, your diagnosis might not be ADHD either.

Severity

As we grow older, our symptoms might change. We can differ on how severe your ADHD is. This is by how your symptoms present themselves and what the consequences are for your life.

  • Mild: You don’t present many symptoms. They currently don’t impair your education, work, or social life on a deep level.
  • Moderate: Some symptoms impair you more “mild,” and some impair you more “severe.”
  • Severe: You might have more symptoms than average. Or several symptoms impair your life more severely.
  • In partial remission: It might be that you don’t present with the full criteria for more than 6 months at a certain time. Yet, your current symptoms still present you with impairments in your life. 
  • In full remission: When the symptoms of ADD/ADHD no longer persist.

What Does ADHD Look Like In Adults? 

An adult with adhd losing focus on tasks.

Although ADHD looks like a child’s disorder, 4 to 5 % of adults still suffer from this mental health condition. Research says that the majority of those who suffer as a child will be in touch with adult ADHD.  

Only the minority of adults has predominantly hyperactive type ADHD. The majority of adults get the combination type diagnosis(62%). Predominantly inattentive type ADHD (31%) is the second biggest group. As is clear from this information, most adults show inattentive symptoms.  

A prominent symptom of adults with ADHD is the difficulty in planning and organizing their daily activities. They feel extreme restlessness, and their impulsivity is still damaging their day-to-day life. Keeping a stable job and relationships is challenging due to these symptoms.

Undiagnosed ADHD with adults leaves them vulnerable to other mental disorders. Up to two-thirds of adults with ADHD show at least one comorbid psychiatric condition. Sometimes, your comorbid mood disorder or other mental health problem might also cover your ADHD core symptoms. 

Combined types of ADHD (62% of adults with ADHD) are more associated with comorbid disorders, abuse, and neuroticism. Having attention to these subtypes is important to prevent any other consequences. It can also guide treatment. 

What Can Adults with ADHD Do?

If you are noticing any of these symptoms and they have an influence on your life, it is time to go to the doctor. 

Your mental health care professional will assess any ADHD symptoms exhibited. Seeking diagnosis and understanding your symptoms can be the first step for proper treatment. 

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that manifests as behavioral symptoms. It can be treated with medication, therapy, or training.

Approved medications to combat ADHD can be administered for children 6 years old and up. The two stimulants approved drugs-methylphenidate and amphetamine. They should increase dopamine in the brain. 

Three non-stimulants, Atomoxetine, Guanfacine, Clonidine, are also FDA approved. They get used when people react badly to stimulants.

Helping your family and yourself cope with the consequences is important. You can do this through therapy sessions and training your environment. 

The therapist will provide you and your family members with concrete tools. Those strategies can increase motivation, attention span, and impulse control. 

Therapy focused on stress management can also ease symptoms for you and your loved ones. Your family might get stressed, frustrated, or angry when your attention is not in the right place. They don’t feel like you are listening. Together you can learn how to navigate those situations.

For people with ADHD, a healthy diet, exercise routine, and enough sleep will help them feel their best. Supplements like omega-3/6 Fatty Acids and adapted diets might have small to medium effects.

While the supplements might improve how certain medications like methylphenidate work for you, the artificial coloring seems to affect brainwave activity and your symptoms.  Discussions on the influence of Zinc, iron, magnesium, and sugar are still ongoing.

Support groups can also be helpful to find how other people handle those challenges. Having mental health problems can feel isolating and can make you lose hope. It is shown that joining a support group can make you feel more connected to the people around you and help boost your self-efficacy and self-esteem.

Conclusion 

It’s important to remember that ADHD is something your brain does. You can still accomplish great things with ADHD, and maybe you’ll be the next inventor or author! 

If you’re unsure if you have ADD or ADHD, ask yourself: are you constantly fidgeting? Is there an excessive amount of energy coming from you? Do you have trouble finishing tasks without being distracted by other activities or people around you? If those symptoms sound familiar, then the chances are good that you might have ADHD.

ADD and ADHD are the same diagnosis. ADD, or attention deficit disorder, is a term used more frequently to describe a more inattentive type of ADHD.

The main difference between the presentations is in how often each symptom display. Both involve struggling with focus and staying on task. Individuals diagnosed with ADD or inattentive ADHD will be less affected by their behavior. 

People with impulsive-hyperactive ADHD will be very talkative fidgety. And might show other behavior that we associate with ADHD. 

Adults seem to suffer more from inattentive ADHD or combined symptoms. If you are suffering from these symptoms, diagnosing ADHD can be the first step to obtain treatment.

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