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The Difference Between Adderall and Ritalin

Blue generic Adderall pills pouring out from a pill bottle.  

Adderall and Ritalin are two of the most commonly used drugs for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Adderall consists of a mixture of amphetamine salts (dextroamphetamine-amphetamine), whereas Ritalin is the brand name for the compound methylphenidate. Amphetamines and methylphenidate are both examples of central nervous system stimulants that increase energy, alertness, and attention. Both drugs cause an increase in the levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine that results in increased arousal by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.

These drugs also cause an increase in the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine that results in euphoric effects. Amphetamines and methylphenidate are similar in structure and have similar mechanisms of action. However, there are subtle differences in potency, side-effects and abuse potential between Adderall and Ritalin. Knowing these differences increases understanding of these drugs and may help prevent misuse.

Adderall vs Ritalin: The Dangers of Study Drugs

The misuse of prescription drugs has been a growing public health concern in recent years. Among prescription drugs, stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are often misused to improve academic and athletic performance. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) 2018:

  • 186,000 individuals over the age of 12 used prescription amphetamines or methylphenidate in a way other than prescribed.
  • 179,000 had misused prescription amphetamines.
  • 72,000 individuals had misused methylphenidate.
  • 25,000 individuals between the ages of 12 and 17 had misused prescription amphetamines.
  • 13,000 individuals in the same age group had misused methylphenidate products (such as Ritalin).

Adderall and Ritalin are psychostimulant drugs that increase arousal, attention, and alertness. Although intended for the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy, these drugs are used over-the-counter as study drugs by students without ADHD to enhance their academic performance. Although there is evidence to support the effectiveness of these drugs in individuals with ADHD, the data regarding the ability of Adderall and Ritalin to improve cognitive function are mixed. At best, these studies suggest only a modest effect on cognitive abilities like learning and memory in individuals without ADHD.

The use of high doses of these drugs can cause an overdose, involving symptoms such as:

  • Increased rate of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Hyperthermia (fever)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation and panic
  • Hallucinations and delusions

Long-term use of Adderall or Ritalin at high doses can lead to the development of addiction. Addiction to these stimulant drugs involves an inability to control the use of the drug despite negative consequences on social and occupational functioning.

Differences Between Adderall and Ritalin

Adderall and Ritalin are both central nervous system stimulants that have similar biological and clinical effects. However, there are certain subtle differences in their mechanism of action, and consequently, in the side-effects and abuse potential of these drugs. Adderall consists of mixed amphetamine salts that block the reabsorption of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine in the brain. Besides blocking the reabsorption of these neurotransmitters, amphetamines also stimulate the release of dopamine and norepinephrine to increase their levels in the brain.

Unlike amphetamines, Ritalin only blocks the reabsorption of dopamine and norepinephrine but does not cause the release of these neurotransmitters. Other differences between Adderall and Ritalin include:

  • Dosage: Adderall is more potent than Ritalin, with smaller doses of Adderall (immediate-release: 5-30mg) necessary to produce an equivalent effect produced by a relatively larger dose of Ritalin (immediate release: 5-20mg). Adderall is used at almost half of the dose of Ritalin. The precise dose administered depends on whether the individual is prescribed an immediate- or extended-release formulation of the drug.
  • Duration of action: Ritalin has a relatively shorter half-life of 2-3 hours, relative to 4-6 hours for Adderall, but has a much quicker onset of action in comparison to Adderall. Both drugs are also available in extended-release or long-acting formulations that last for around 10 hours.
  • Drug interaction: Both Adderall and Ritalin tend to interact with a similar set of substances due to the similarities in their mechanism of action. Both drugs interact with antidepressants (including monoamine oxidase inhibitors and serotonin reuptake inhibitors), medications for colds (antihistamines), and drugs for seizures and high blood pressure (anti-hypertensive drugs).
  • Side-effects: Due to a similar mode of action, many of the side-effects caused by Adderall and Ritalin are common to both drugs. These include loss of appetite, weight loss, headaches, abdominal pain, dizziness, nervousness and dryness of the mouth. Some of the rare adverse effects of these stimulants include psychosis, seizures, and cardiovascular problems. However, Adderall is more likely to cause side effects such as insomnia, reduced appetite, and irritability, whereas Ritalin is associated with a higher likelihood of abdominal pain and depressed mood.
  • Abuse potential & addiction: Both Adderall and Ritalin have a high potential for abuse and must only be used as prescribed. However, Ritalin has a lower abuse potential than Adderall. The use of higher than prescribed doses of Ritalin or Adderall and other forms of misuse can lead to the development of physical dependence on the medications and may lead to addiction.

Recognizing Signs of Adderall or Ritalin Abuse in Teens

Teenagers and older students may abuse psychostimulants like Adderall or Ritalin to improve academic performance. In such cases, these drugs may be taken orally, and signs of Adderall or Ritalin abuse in the form of paraphernalia may be absent. However, in certain cases, these medications may be dissolved in water and then injected into a vein. The presence of needles and other injection paraphernalia may be an indicator of drug use. If teens are borrowing money without a good reason, or if parents frequently find money missing, these may also be indicators of teenage drug use.

Besides these general signs of drug use, some of the more specific physical and behavioral symptoms of prescription stimulant abuse may include:

  • Increased energy that may manifest itself in the form of increased talkativeness or restlessness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased alertness
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Excessive sweating
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Irritability

Getting Help with Teen Addiction

Prescription drug abuse is one of the fastest-growing drug-related problems in the United States. This is also true for teenagers, with prescription drugs being the most commonly abused drug in teens after marijuana and alcohol. The brain continues to mature during adolescence, and using drugs during this period can impair normal brain development. Furthermore, drug use during adolescence can result in permanent changes in the brain, including in the regions involved in decision-making and impulse control. If a teenager has developed an addiction to prescription drugs or other substances, treatment at a rehabilitation center for teens may be necessary. These rehabilitation centers specialize in the treatment of adolescents with drug-related problems.

If your child is addicted to prescription stimulants, Next Generation Village can help. The staff at Next Generation Village consists of accredited and experienced doctors, nurses and mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of substance use disorders in teens. Contact Next Generation Village to learn more about the treatment options available for your teenager.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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