Adderall vs. Ritalin: What’s the Difference?
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Adderall vs. Ritalin: What's the Difference?

Treating ADHD

In the United States, 9.5 percent of children between the ages of 3 years and 17 years have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD isn’t just for kids, though. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 60 percent of children with ADHD will still have symptoms as adults. People with ADHD have trouble concentrating and controlling impulses. They may be fidgety and excitable.

Doctors often prescribe stimulant medications to people with ADHD. Two common choices are Adderall and Ritalin. These drugs can help people concentrate and focus on tasks better. They also reduce impulsive behavior, which is another hallmark of ADHD.

Adderall and Ritalin work in similar ways to treat ADHD. They also share the same side effects. However, they have important differences. We’ll explain the basics of both drugs.

Drug Features

Use the table below to compare Adderall and Ritalin at a glance.

How they work

Both Adderall and Ritalin are central nervous system (CNS) stimulants. They work by increasing the availability of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine in your CNS connections. This speeds up your brain activity.

Ritalin works sooner and reaches peak performance more quickly than Adderall does. However, Adderall stays active in your body longer than Ritalin does. Adderall works for four to six hours. Ritalin is only active for two to three hours. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Adderall is a better choice, though. Some people prefer the shorter-acting Ritalin because they can better control the timing of side effects, such as loss of appetite and trouble sleeping.

Cost, availability, and insurance

Adderall and Ritalin are brand-name drugs that are also available as generic drugs. Generic forms tend to cost less than the brand-name versions.

In general, Adderall and Ritalin cost about the same. The amount you pay for the drugs will depend on your health insurance plan. Some health insurance plans only cover the generic versions of the drugs. If you’re unsure, you can call your insurance provider to find out the specifics of your plan.

Adderall and Ritalin are usually available at most pharmacies. However, these drugs can have shortages, so they may not be available at all times. Call your pharmacy ahead of time to find out if your medication is available.

Side effects

Since both drugs work in the same way, these drugs cause similar side effects.

Common side effects for both Adderall and Ritalin include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • dry mouth
  • anxiety
  • increased heart rate
  • irritability
  • headache
  • dizziness

Serious side effects shared by both medications can include:

  • addiction
  • heart rhythm problems
  • psychosis, which may cause you to see things that aren’t real or to feel like bugs are crawling on your skin
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • slowed growth in children

Use with other medical conditions

These two medications can cause effects in people with certain medical conditions. People with certain health issues may need to avoid taking these drugs. The chart below lists medical conditions you should discuss with your doctor before taking Adderall or Ritalin.

Both medications are pregnancy category C drugs. This means animal studies of the drugs have shown side effects on the fetus. But, there haven’t been enough studies done in humans for results to be conclusive.

Adderall can pass into breast milk, which means the drug may pass to your child when you breastfeed them. Some studies show that Ritalin can also pass from mother to child through breast milk. These drugs may cause side effects in your child. Talk to your doctor if you take Adderall or Ritalin. For your child’s safety, you may need to decide whether to stop breastfeeding or stop taking your medication.

Drug interactions

Adderall and Ritalin both interact with certain other drugs. Make sure you tell your doctor about all of the prescription and over-the-counter medications, supplements, and herbs you take. This way, your doctor can watch for drug interactions.

The chart below lists examples of drugs that may interact with Adderall or Ritalin.

Making a Decision

According to a review of studies spanning 40 years, stimulant medications are effective in treating 70 to 80 percent of children and adults with ADHD. The general recommendation is that if one of these drugs doesn’t work for you, you should try the other one. With that being said, there are some minor differences between the two drugs, such as how quickly and how long they work in your body. Work with your doctor to find the best drug for your ADHD.

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