OCD or ADHD? Differences, symptoms and treatment options


Both OCD and ADHD are mental disorders whose diagnosis should be carried out by qualified medical professionals. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Whether in serious or run-of-the-mill conversations, it is common to hear people say, “I have OCD, or, so and so has ADHD.” Most times, a person considers herself too clean or struggles to concentrate.

While these are medical terms, they are often muttered with a casual abandon. By definition, OCD is obsessive-compulsive disorder while ADHD is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is imperative to seek medical advice before reaching such conclusions.

“Both OCD and ADHD are mental disorders whose diagnosis should be carried out by qualified medical professionals,” says Dr Ruth Korir, a psychiatrist working at the Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital in Nairobi.

OCD is a chronic mental disorder in which a patient can either experience intrusive, unwanted, uncontrollable and recurrent thoughts (obsessions), or engage in repetitive behaviour/mental acts(compulsions) or both.

For example, a patient may be preoccupied with the fear of germs (obsession) that will have them clean up repeatedly(compulsion) or they are in constant fear of losing personal things that they have to arrange in a certain order and are anxious when this order is not achieved.

Although OCD’s occurrence can be observed across all age groups, OCD in children starts around 12 years of age and 19 years for adults. For adults, it is more common in women than men. Patients with OCD are unable to control their obsessions and compulsions even when they know they are excessive, they spend more than one hour a day on their obsessions and compulsions and feel relieved albeit temporarily from their compulsions.

“Although the exact cause of OCD is not known, there are risk factors that increase the chances of its development. Genetics—having a first-degree relative with OCD is associated with increased chances of developing the disorder. Others include childhood trauma and life events like childbirth,” says Dr Korir.

A 2023 University of Ottawa, Department of Psychology Study, reported a case of medication-induced OCD adding to the list of known risk factors.

The treatment of OCD is case-dependent, Dr Korir asserts. “OCD’s treatment is patient-centred and may range from medication to psychotherapy or a combination of both depending on severity. We also have exposure and response prevention therapy as another effective treatment that can be used.

Patients are exposed to situations that trigger their obsessions while preventing them from indulging in their compulsion to gradually reduce these compulsions.”

ADHD on the other hand, is a common neurodevelopmental disorder. Patients appear restless, have trouble with concentration and may act impulsively. “ADHD is characterised by inattention and/or hyperactivity. Patients exhibit controlling and impulsive behaviours and overly active mannerisms. They are fidgety and appear unsettled most times. They might also talk too much, forget or lose their personal effects easily, and experience difficulties in getting along with others,” Dr Korir says.

Just like OCD, ADHD has a genetic component to it and its occurrence in a family’s history may increase one’s chances of developing it. Other risk factors include brain injury, premature delivery, low birth weight, and exposure to environmental risks such as lead during pregnancy or early childhood.

There is no evidence yet that links commonly believed views such as too much television, poverty, parenting styles, and family chaos to ADHD.


“ADHD diagnosis is a detailed assessment that may include checking family history and physical examination to rule out other possible causes of symptoms such as learning disabilities, sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.

For children, it is highly recommended that the first line of intervention be psychotherapy before trying medication. Additionally, occupational family therapy is recommended to best equip members of the family to live with ADHD patients. As is the case with OCD, the best plans are patient-focused. Including follow-ups and changes to the plan with time might help in the management of ADHD,” Dr Korir says.

Early diagnosis and intervention assist the patient to lead more comfortable lives.

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