Adderall vs. Ritalin: The Differences Explained

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 20, 2023
2 min read

Most people who take medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) take a drug called a stimulant. Adderall and Ritalin are both in that category. They help control levels of two chemicals in your brain, dopamine and norepinephrine, that affect how well you concentrate.

Studies show that stimulants work well on ADHD symptoms for about 80% of people who take them. About half of those people get the same results from either Adderall or Ritalin. But for the other half, one drug works better than the other. This is because they work in different ways and can cause different side effects.

It usually takes some trial and error to find the drug and dosage that work best for you. If the first one you try doesn’t help enough or causes too many side effects, your doctor can switch you to another one.

Adderall is the brand name for a mix of two stimulants called amphetamine-dextroamphetamine. Ritalin is the brand name for a stimulant called methylphenidate.

Both medications come in two forms, short-acting and long-acting. You take the long-acting form in the morning, and it’s meant to last all day. The short-acting form lasts about 4 hours.

Some long-acting forms are capsules that hold two kinds of beads: Half dissolve right away and give you one dose of the drug. The rest of the beads don't go into your system until later.

The long-acting version of Adderall, while the long-acting form of Ritalin lasts 6 to 12.

The two drugs can cause some of the same side effects, like:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Stomach upset
  • Skin rash
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Tics
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Mood swings
  • Hives
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Dizziness
  • Belly pain or nausea

They also come with warnings about the chance of heart problems, mental health problems, seizures, blurred vision, and circulation problems in your fingers and toes.

With Adderall, men also may notice changes in their sex drives, impotence, frequent erections, or erections that last longer than usual. Some people who take it might have hair loss or rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition in which muscles break down.

Prices can vary widely, so check with your insurance plan to see what’s covered and compare prices at your local pharmacies. In general, the longer-acting forms of both Ritalin and Adderall are more expensive than the shorter-acting forms. And the generic versions can cost much less than brand names.

The FDA classifies both medications as Schedule II controlled substances. That means it’s possible for you to depend on them. But that may be less likely with the long-acting forms because they’re designed to release their medicine slowly.

If you’ve had a problem with drug or alcohol abuse in the past, talk to your doctor about whether you should take stimulant medications.