Physiological Side Effects

The two most frequent side effects children complain about are not feeling hungry and not being able to sleep. Other problems which may arise are head-aches, stomach aches, skin rash, crying, tiredness, grumpiness, social withdrawal, and emotional blandness. What parents and teachers notice most are children’s changed mood and appearance. Some children, typically those on higher dosages or under four years-of-age, are described as “having the amphetamine look,” “wearing a chemical straitjacket,” or “no longer childlike.”

Side effects are seen in about 10 to 21 per cent of children taking Ritalin. They are usually temporary and respond to decreases in children’s dosage. As well, children can take second side-effect drugs to counteract the negative effects stimulants have. However, this does not always work because side-effect drugs also can produce their own set of side effects.

Children taking Ritalin for a number of years are also susceptible to more serious side effects such as increased blood pressure and heart rate. Average dosages of medication can cause heart rate increases of eight to 15 beats per minute in children. These are considered mild, with children developing a tolerance within two to five months. However, more extreme cases have also been reported, ranging from an increase of 40 beats to a decrease of 17 beats per minute.

Another long-term side effect is growth suppression in both height and weight. These delays are usually temporary, with children spurting up 15 to 68 per cent above their normal increases when they are taken off medication.

A concern which many parents have is whether their child taking medication at an early age is setting him up for a later drug habit. Generally, medicated hyperactive children are no more likely to abuse drugs later in life than any other child. Some even contend that taking medication at an early age prevents drug dependency, because it teaches children how to use drugs for legitimate reasons and neutralizes those problems which can lead to dependency.

Another drawback to medication is that overall it does not produce lasting effects. Hyperactive children taking medication were not significantly further ahead in follow-up studies than those receiving no medication at all. In other words, medication temporarily can alleviate symptoms, but it does not cure anything. Also, if medication is relied upon as the only form of treatment, the child’s chances of success are weakened.