Ritalin and Adderall: What’s the Difference?

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 the levels of two chemicals in your brain that affect how well you concentrate -- dopamine and norepinephrine.

Studies show that stimulants work well on ADHD symptoms for about 80% of people who take them. About half those people could 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 dose and drug 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.

How Long Do They Last?

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 forms last about 4 hours.

These capsules hold two kinds of beads: Half dissolve right away and give you one dose of the drug. The rest of the beads are coated so the medicine doesn’t get into your system until it’s time for a second dose.

The long-acting version of Adderall can last 10 to 12 hours, while the long-acting form of Ritalin lasts 6 to 12.

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Side Effects

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

They also come with warnings about the chance of heart problems, mental health issues, 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, when muscle breaks down and gets weaker.

Other possible side effects of Ritalin include:

Cost

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.

Are They Addictive?

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

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 25, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: “Medication Management.”

Child Mind Institute: “Understanding ADHD Medications.”

U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Adderall XR Drug Label,” “Adderall XR Medication Guide,” “Adderall Medication Guide,” “Ritalin LA Drug Label,” “Ritalin LA Medication Guide,” “Ritalin Medication Guide.”

FDA: “Orange Book: Approved Drug Products with Therapeutic Equivalence Evaluations.”

Drug Enforcement Administration: “Controlled Substance Schedules.”

Medscape: “FDA Clears Long-Acting ADHD Drug Mydaysis.”

Pediatrics Child Health: “Extended-release medications for children and adolescents with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

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