ADHD / ADD

Ritalin vs. Adderall: What’s the difference?

Ritalin and Adderall can help treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Doctors also sometimes prescribe these medications to people with narcolepsy.

Ritalin and Adderall are the brand names for two different types of stimulant medication. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), stimulants work by increasing the chemicals in a person’s brain that regulate thinking and paying attention.

Research shows that stimulants are generally safe and effective for the treatment of ADHD.

In this article, learn about the differences between the two common stimulants Ritalin and Adderall. We also cover the side effects and safety of each drug.

Ritalin vs. Adderall

Doctor holding pill bottle and writing prescription for Ritalin or Adderall
The long-term side effects of Ritalin and Adderall are unknown.

Although Ritalin and Adderall are both stimulants, they contain different active ingredients.

The drug in Ritalin is methylphenidate hydrochloride, while Adderall is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine.

Both medications are effective in reducing the symptoms of ADHD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Between 70–80 percent of children with ADHD have fewer ADHD symptoms when they take these fast-acting medications.”

However, Ritalin and Adderall can also have significant side effects, and the long-term effects of taking the drugs remain unknown.

According to the authors of a 2018 meta-analysis, methylphenidate — the drug in Ritalin — is usually best for children or adolescents with ADHD.

For adults with ADHD, the researchers concluded that amphetamines, such as Adderall, are generally best.

This meta-analysis took into account the effectiveness of each of the drugs for treating a person’s ADHD symptoms as well as their safety.

However, the authors noted the urgent need for more research to assess the long-term effects of both drugs.

Who needs them?

A doctor may prescribe Ritalin or Adderall to a person with ADHD as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

According to the charity Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), a comprehensive treatment plan will include:

  • education about ADHD and its causes
  • education about diagnosis and treatment options
  • behavioral therapy to teach a person how to manage the symptoms of ADHD
  • medication, such as Ritalin or Adderall
  • general mental health counseling for the individual and their family
  • changes to a person’s education to account for their ADHD

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend a combination of behavioral therapy and medication for children aged 6 years and older.

For children under the age of 6 years, they only recommend behavioral therapy as it is as effective as medication. ADHD medication typically has more side effects in young children.

Can people use them together?

A doctor would not generally advise a person to take Adderall and Ritalin together.

There is little research on how these medications interact with each other. As the drugs work in a similar way, taking them both could increase the chances of a person developing significant side effects or other complications.

Side effects

Woman having difficulty sleep due to Ritalin or Adderall
A side effect of both Ritalin and Adderall may be difficulty sleeping.

Although the medical community generally sees Ritalin and Adderall as safe drugs when a person takes them according to a doctor’s instructions, they can both have some significant side effects.

The NIMH note that these side effects include:

  • decreased appetite
  • difficulty sleeping
  • tics, which are sudden, repetitive, involuntary movements or sounds
  • changes in personality, including anxiety and irritability
  • stomachaches
  • headaches

If a person experiences any of these side effects, they should speak to their doctor.

Dosage

The dosage for both Ritalin and Adderall can vary between individuals. According to CHADD, a doctor will often determine the correct dosage for a person through a trial introduction of the medication.

The doctor will begin by prescribing a small amount of one of the medications. They can then steadily increase the amount to reach a balance between the effectiveness of the drug and the extent of its side effects.

Complications

Complications can arise when a person takes either Ritalin or Adderall.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Ritalin can cause complications if the person taking it:

  • is very anxious, agitated, or tense
  • has glaucoma
  • has tics, Tourette’s syndrome, or a family history of Tourette’s syndrome
  • has recently taken an antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor
  • is allergic to any of the ingredients in Ritalin
  • has heart problems or high blood pressure
  • has another mental health condition
  • experiences seizures
  • gets circulation problems in their toes or fingers

The FDA warn that Adderall can cause complications if the person taking it has:

  • hardening of the arteries or heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • hyperthyroidism
  • glaucoma
  • a tendency to be very tense, agitated, or anxious
  • a history of drug misuse
  • recently taken a monoamine oxidase inhibitor
  • experienced any issues with other stimulant medications
  • another mental health condition
  • tics or Tourette’s syndrome
  • liver or kidney problems
  • thyroid problems
  • seizures

If a person is taking another medication, they should ensure that their doctor is aware in case it can have an adverse interaction with either Ritalin or Adderall.

Summary

Research shows that Ritalin and Adderall are effective and generally safe if a person takes them according to a doctor’s instructions. However, the longer-term effects of taking stimulants are less well-known.

It is essential for someone taking stimulants to have regular checkups with a doctor. The doctor can help monitor any side effects and determine whether the individual’s current dosage is still appropriate.

Stimulants for ADHD are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes behavioral therapy and education for both the person with ADHD and their primary caregivers if they are a child.

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