Concerta and Ritalin are stimulant medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They’re both different brand-name versions of the same drug, called methylphenidate hydrochloride. While these two medications have similar effects on the brain, their differences lie in strength, dosage, and how long you take the medication.
Side by side
The table below compares several basic features of these two drugs side by side.
How they work
Stimulants are among the most commonly prescribed drugs for ADHD. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stimulants work to treat the condition in 70 percent of adults. They’re also effective for 70 to 80 percent of children with ADHD. Stimulants like Concerta and Ritalin may help reduce symptoms such as fidgeting, hyperactivity, short attention span, and more.
Despite the name of this class of drugs, stimulants actually have calming effects on the brain. They work by increasing levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals play a role in ADHD.
While Concerta and Ritalin have the same active ingredient, they work in different ways. Concerta is a long-acting drug: It increases dopamine steadily. This means that you only need to take it once per day for all-day symptom relief. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Concerta works for 10 to 12 hours. In most cases, symptoms get better throughout the day, so it’s best to take this medication first thing in the morning. The effects may wear off by the end of the day.
On the other hand, Ritalin is a short-acting, immediate-release stimulant. This means that it works quickly in your body. It increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels almost immediately. Ritalin is especially helpful for people who need symptom relief right away. Because Ritalin does not work steadily like Concerta, Ritalin is taken two to three times per day. It’s best to take the drug 45 minutes before eating to make sure your body fully absorbs it.
Concerta has a long, steady release pattern, while the short-acting Ritalin releases more quickly and the level drops between doses. This creates more hills and valleys in your blood level. Some people do better with the long release of Concerta while others may need the quicker action of Ritalin.
Other versions of Ritalin may work similarly to the long-acting benefits of Concerta. These include intermediate-acting Ritalin SR and long-acting Ritalin LA. But Ritalin LA does not last as long as Concerta. Recall that Concerta can act for up to 10-12 hours. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that long-acting Ritalin works for six to eight hours.
Cost and availability
There is a cost difference between the once-daily dosage of Concerta and the several doses per day you take of immediate-release Ritalin. In general, Ritalin costs more because you need to take it more often.
Both medications are available as generic drugs. Generic forms tend to cost less than brand-name versions of the same medications. Generic forms of Ritalin tend to cost less than generic forms of Concerta. The cost to you depends on your health insurance plan. Your plan likely covers generic forms of both drugs. Also, Concerta and Ritalin are both usually stocked at most pharmacies.
Stimulants like Concerta and Ritalin carry the risk of side effects. Both drugs may affect growth in children or cause weight loss. Some doctors have people take “drug holidays.” For instance, your child’s doctor might have your child stop taking the drug over the summer between school terms to reduce the risk of side effects.
Because they contain the same drug, Concerta and Ritalin share the same side effects. Common side effects can include:
- dry mouth
- trouble sleeping
- nausea, vomiting, or upset stomach
- loss of appetite
- faster heart rate
Serious side effects can include:
- slowed growth in children
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- cold or numb fingers or toes that turn white or blue
- increased violence or violent thoughts
- auditory hallucinations (voices telling you to do certain things)
- painful erections that last several hours
These drugs are not right for everyone. People with some health problems should not take Concerta or Ritalin. You may also need to avoid the drugs if you take certain medications. Make sure you tell your doctor about all over-the-counter and prescription drugs, supplements, and herbs you’re taking. In particular, you should not use a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) within 14 days of starting Concerta or Ritalin.
Before you take either drug, tell your doctor if you have a history or current symptoms of:
- coronary artery disease
- heart disease
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
- irregular heart rate
- hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- severe anxiety
Concerta and Ritalin can be abused. Even if you take the drugs as prescribed, they can cause dependence. The risk of dependence is greater in people with a history of substance abuse. If you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, you should discuss your risk of dependence with your doctor before taking Concerta or Ritalin.
Both medications are category C pregnancy drugs. Animal studies have shown side effects in the fetus, but there haven’t been enough studies in humans to draw conclusions yet. Tell your doctor if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or planning to become pregnant.
Both Concerta and Ritalin work in similar ways to help improve ADHD symptoms. The two medications also carry similarities in terms of benefits, risks, and how well they work. The greatest consideration in deciding between the two drugs may be whether a long-acting or short-acting version is best. This choice depends on the severity, frequency, and timing of your symptoms. Your doctor can help you choose which drug is best for you.