Bipolar vs. ADHD: Symptoms and differences

ADHD is more common than bipolar disorder. As the two conditions can coexist, misdiagnosis can occur.

In this article, we compare bipolar disorder and ADHD. Read on to learn about the symptoms of each and how they can overlap. We also explain treatments and when to see a doctor.

Bipolar vs. ADHD

Bipolar disorder is a long-term mental health condition that can cause unusual shifts between high and low moods.

Bipolar symptoms occur in episodes rather than being ongoing. In addition to affecting how a person thinks and feels, bipolar disorder can influence their behavior.

In contrast, ADHD is a condition that affects a person’s attention, activity, and impulse control. It primarily affects behavior, not mood. Symptoms are ongoing rather than occurring in episodes.

ADHD is more common in children than adults. Around 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD.

Bipolar disorder usually starts when a person is in their late teens or early-20s, but it can also affect children. This is called early-onset bipolar disorder.

A child with ADHD may behave in similar ways to a child with bipolar disorder who is having a hypomanic episode. However, there are ways to tell the conditions apart, such as:

  • bipolar symptoms tend to be more severe than those of ADHD
  • ADHD behavior is ongoing, while bipolar symptoms occur during distinct episodes
  • a child with bipolar may experience both high and low moods (depending on the type of bipolar disorder)

During a manic episode, a child or teen with bipolar disorder may be:

  • acting in an unusually silly way for their age
  • being short-tempered
  • talking quickly about many topics
  • sleeping less but not feeling tired
  • having trouble sleeping
  • taking more risks

During a depressive episode, a child or teen with bipolar disorder may be:

  • expressing sadness, guilt, and worthlessness
  • complaining about aches and pains
  • oversleeping or not getting enough sleep
  • having little energy
  • eating more or less than usual
  • losing interest in activities that they usually enjoy
  • talking about self-harm or suicide

If the caregiver of a child with ADHD notices signs of bipolar disorder, they should speak to a doctor as soon as possible.

Many different treatments are available for ADHD and bipolar disorder.

ADHD treatments for children include behavior therapy and medication. Caregivers can help manage a child’s behavior by:

  • creating and sticking to a routine
  • managing distractions
  • limiting choices
  • setting goals

ADHD treatments for adults include medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy).

When doctors diagnose ADHD and bipolar disorder together, they may consider bipolar disorder to be the primary condition and treat this first.

The reason for this is that bipolar disorder may cause more severe complications than ADHD. There is also a risk that medications for ADHD could make bipolar symptoms worse.

This approach also allows the doctor to see which attention symptoms persist after a person commences treatment for bipolar and to make better decisions about how to treat those ADHD symptoms.

Before treating ADHD, a person with both conditions may benefit from taking mood stabilizers. They can discuss this option with a doctor.

When to see a doctor

If a person recognizes the signs of ADHD or bipolar disorder in themselves or a child, they should speak to the doctor.

Receiving a proper diagnosis and getting the right treatment is the best way to manage ADHD, bipolar disorder, or both conditions.

If a person or a child has already received a diagnosis of one of these conditions, this does not mean that they do not also have the other. A person can have both bipolar disorder and ADHD.

It is always a good idea to discuss any changes in symptoms with a doctor to help ensure that a person has the right diagnosis and treatment.

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