Inattention: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Inattention involves difficulty focusing, getting distracted easily, and forgetfulness, among other symptoms. It's a commonly known symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but inattention can also be a symptom of some other conditions.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental (having to do with the brain's growth) disorder marked by difficulty focusing, impulsivity, and restlessness that interferes with daily life. Though inattention is a symptom of all types of ADHD, it is more prominent in inattentive and mixed-type ADHD.

This article covers the symptoms and causes of inattention, risk factors, diagnosis, and when to get help.

Distracted woman looking out window

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Symptoms of Inattention

Symptoms of inattention include:

  • Skipping details and seeming to make careless mistakes
  • Difficulty focusing because of daydreaming or distractibility
  • Having trouble sticking to plans and making long-term goals

Other symptoms of inattention include:

  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Disorganization and losing important things, like keys or money
  • Forgetfulness

Causes of Inattention

The most common causes of inattention are:

  • ADHD: Inattentive-type and mixed-type ADHD are more likely to include significant inattention.
  • Lack of sleep or fatigue.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Cognitive development delays: Developmental delays are marked by not matching peers of the same age with learning, thinking, and reasoning skills. Potential causes of cognitive delays include learning disabilities, learning style differences, trauma, mental health conditions, or substance abuse disorders.

Other common causes of inattention include:

  • Vision or hearing problems: Hearing and vision tests can be part of determining the cause of inattention, especially for children.
  • Migraine headaches
  • Diabetes: Diabetes can cause difficulty paying attention and memory loss, and these symptoms can worsen over time.
  • Blood disorders like anemia (low iron)
  • Environment: Too noisy, busy, or distracting environments might increase inattention.
  • Aging: Cognitive decline can include symptoms of inattention.

What Medications Can Cause Inattention?

Several types of medications can cause "brain fog," or trouble focusing and remembering things. These include:

  • Medications for chronic pain
  • Sleep drugs like Ambien
  • Asthma medications and antihistamines
  • Some anti-seizure medications

How to Treat Inattention

For many people, treating ADHD can help with limiting and managing inattention. Treatments for ADHD include:

  • Stimulant medications: Stimulants affect the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine and help with alertness and focus.
  • Non-stimulant medications: Non-stimulant drugs for ADHD can include those specifically for the disorder, antidepressants, and medications to help stay awake.
  • Behavior therapy for emotions and social skills
  • Adjusting surroundings to foster better attention
  • Vitamin B and/or iron supplementation: Research has found that vitamin B12 and iron levels might help children with ADHD.

Other Ways of Treating Inattention

For those who might not have ADHD, treating inattention might include:

  • Managing stress and treating emotional issues like depression or trauma
  • Treating underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, mineral deficiencies, or blood disorders
  • Asking a healthcare provider about the side effects of any medications you are taking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Limiting screen time
  • Sleeping regularly

Complications and Risk Factors Associated With Inattention

Complications of untreated inattention might include:

  • Learning difficulties for children
  • Disruptions with school, work, and relationships
  • Unaddressed cognitive development issues or learning differences
  • In older people, unaddressed cognitive decline could delay diagnosis and treatment of dementia
  • Higher risk of accidents
  • Higher frustration and stress, which could lead to poor mood, lack of sleep, and unhealthy coping mechanisms like drug use

Several risk factors could increase the chances of a person having symptoms of inattention, including:

  • Neurodevelopmental issues like ADHD or a cognitive disability
  • Low birth weight or having been born prematurely
  • Alcohol, tobacco, or exposure to chemicals during pregnancy
  • Head injury
  • Trauma
  • Mood disorders, anxiety, and stress
  • Aging
  • Blood disorders like anemia
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma or allergies
  • Taking medications for sleep, allergies, seizures, and pain
  • Lack of exercise

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Inattention?

Inattention is most commonly a symptom of ADHD. Diagnosing ADHD includes determining if a patient meets the criteria for the disorder as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the handbook for psychiatric disorders. Other ways to diagnose ADHD might include:

  • Cognitive tests to determine if a child is experiencing learning style differences or is living with a disability
  • For children, family and teacher interviews
  • Ruling out hearing or vision issues
  • Assessing if the environment is the reason behind the attention difficulties

For other causes of inattention, diagnosis might include:

  • Cognitive screening for those who are aging
  • Blood tests for diabetes, blood disorders, mineral deficiencies, and allergies
  • Determining if the inattention is a side effect of medication

When to See a Healthcare Professional

If inattention interferes with work, school, relationships, social life, and learning, it might be time to determine its underlying cause.

Getting Help for Inattention

Considering inattention could be a side effect of conditions like anemia, allergies, or diabetes, getting physically tested to rule out chronic health concerns might also be important. For older people, inattention could necessitate screening for dementia or Alzheimer's, for which early treatment can be important for both safety and quality of life. Treating emotional concerns like mood disorders, stress, and trauma might also require help from a specialist.


Inattention is a symptom marked by difficulty focusing, an inability to follow through with plans, and distractibility. It is most often a symptom of ADHD. Still, inattention can also be a symptom of stress or anxiety, mineral deficiency, hearing or vision issues, lack of sleep, cognitive decline, a learning disability, diabetes, allergies, or asthma, among other disorders. Medications for sleep, allergies, or pain can include inattention as a side effect.

Treating inattention can include treating ADHD with stimulant or non-stimulant medication, addressing cognitive difficulties or decline, treating physical ailments like diabetes or a blood disorder, therapy for emotional difficulties, or changing a person's environment. Diagnosing inattention might include meeting criteria for ADHD, ruling out physical problems, and determining if inattention interferes with school, work, and relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the causes of inattention that are not ADHD?

    Inattention can result from physical conditions like anemia and other blood disorders, diabetes, brain injuries, allergies or asthma, and migraine headaches, among other conditions. Some medications, including those that prevent seizures or medications for pain, can also cause inattention. Vision and hearing problems, learning style differences, or cognitive development delays can also be potential causes. For older people, inattention could indicate the need for dementia screening so treatment can start as soon as possible.

  • What are the risks of untreated or unaddressed inattention?

    Untreated inattention could increase the chances of not addressing learning disabilities or differences or neglecting cognitive development issues. Inattention can also indicate a health problem like diabetes or a blood disorder, and for some older people, it can mean needing to begin treatment for cognitive decline. At times, inattention can increase the chances of accidents, work and school disruptions, learning delays, and social problems.

  • What does inattention look like?

    Inattention can include trouble sticking to a task or making long-term plans, getting distracted at work or play, and difficulty following directions. Inattention can also look like hearing or vision issues, cognitive decline, or exhaustion. Feeling at higher risk of accidents or life disruptions might also be part of living with inattention. Trauma and emotional issues can also cause inattention.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Neha Kashyap
Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.