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ADHD vs. ADD: What’s the Difference?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood disorders. ADHD is a broad term, and the condition can vary from person to person. There are an estimated 6.4 million diagnosed children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This condition is sometimes called attention deficit disorder (ADD), but this is an outdated term. The term was once used to refer to someone who had trouble focusing but was not hyperactive. The American Psychiatric Association released the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in May 2013. The DSM-5 changed the criteria to diagnose someone with ADHD.

Keep reading to learn more about the types and symptoms of ADHD.

There are three types of ADHD:

1. Inattentive

Inattentive ADHD is what’s usually meant when someone uses the term ADD. This means a person shows enough symptoms of inattention (or easy distractibility) but isn’t hyperactive or impulsive.

2. Hyperactive/impulsive

This type occurs when a person has symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity but not inattention.

3. Combined

Combined ADHD is when a person has symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Inattention, or trouble focusing, is one symptom of ADHD. A doctor may diagnose a child as inattentive if the child:

  • is easily distracted
  • is forgetful, even in daily activities
  • is unable to give close attention to details in school work or other activities and makes careless mistakes
  • has trouble keeping attention on tasks or activities
  • ignores a speaker, even when spoken to directly
  • doesn’t follow instructions
  • fails to finish schoolwork or chores
  • loses focus or is easily side-tracked
  • has trouble with organization
  • dislikes and avoids tasks that require long periods of mental effort, such as homework
  • loses vital things needed for tasks and activities

A doctor may diagnose a child as hyperactive or impulsive if the child:

  • appears to be always on the go
  • talks excessively
  • has severe difficulty waiting for their turn
  • squirms in their seat, taps their hands or feet, or fidgets
  • gets up from a seat when expected to remain seated
  • runs around or climbs in inappropriate situations
  • is unable to quietly play or take part in leisure activities
  • blurts out an answer before someone finishes asking a question
  • intrudes on and interrupts others constantly
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Learn more: 7 Signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) »

Inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are important symptoms for an ADHD diagnosis. In addition, a child or adult must meet the following criteria to be diagnosed with ADHD:

  • displays several symptoms before the age of 12
  • has symptoms in more than one setting, such as school, at home, with friends, or during other activities
  • shows clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with their functioning at school, work, or in social situations
  • has symptoms that are not explained by another condition, such as mood or anxiety disorders

Adults with ADHD have typically had the disorder since childhood, but it may not be diagnosed until later in life. An evaluation usually occurs at the prompting of a peer, family member, or co-worker who observes problems at work or in relationships.

Adults can have any of the three subtypes of ADHD. Adult ADHD symptoms can differ from those of children because of the relative maturity of adults, as well as physical differences between adults and children.

Learn more: 12 Signs of adult ADHD »

The symptoms of ADHD can range from mild to severe, depending on a person’s unique physiology and environment. Some people are mildly inattentive or hyperactive when they perform a task they don’t enjoy, but they have the ability to focus on tasks they like. Others may experience more severe symptoms. These can affect school, work, and social situations.

Symptoms are often more severe in unstructured group situations than in structured situations with rewards. For example, a playground is a more unstructured group situation. A classroom may represent a structured and rewards-based environment.

Other conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or a learning disability may worsen symptoms.

Some people report that symptoms go away with age. An adult with ADHD who was hyperactive as a child may find that they’re now able to remain seated or curb some impulsivity.

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Determining your type of ADHD puts you one step closer to finding the right treatment. Be sure to discuss all your symptoms with your doctor so you get an accurate diagnosis.


Can a child “outgrow” ADHD or will it continue into adulthood if left untreated?


Current thinking suggests that as the child grows, the prefrontal cortex grows and matures as well. This decreases symptoms. It’s been suggested that roughly one-third of people no longer have symptoms of ADHD during adulthood. Others may continue to have symptoms, but these may be milder than those noted during childhood and adolescence.

Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNPAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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