- Adderall and Ritalin are both stimulants used to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- The main difference between Adderall and Ritalin is the latter works more quickly, while the former tends to stay in the system longer and lasts longer.
- Adderall can be taken by children as young as 3 years old, but Ritalin does not have FDA approval for kids under 6.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Although Adderall and Ritalin have a similar effect on the brain, there are key differences including how quickly they kick in and how long they stay in your system.
Learn more about the similarities and differences between Adderall and Ritalin.
Ritalin vs. Adderall
Ritalin and Adderall have different main ingredients, but each has a similar effect as a treatment for:
- ADHD: A neurological condition that makes it difficult for a person to focus or stay still.
- Narcolepsy: A condition that causes excessive sleepiness.
When used properly, the main difference between them is that Ritalin works more quickly than Adderall, which tends to stay in the system longer and lasts longer.
Other differences include dosage and the fact that Adderall can be taken by children as young as 3 years old, whereas Ritalin does not have FDA approval for kids under 6.
Ritalin: Dosage, strength, and how long it lasts
The active ingredient in Ritalin is the prescription drug methylphenidate. Methylphenidate is also sold in generic forms and under the brand names Concerta and Daytrana.
Ritalin is approved for the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy in people who are 6 or older. The FDA does not endorse Ritalin for use in kids under 6, because it hasn’t been studied in this population.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both say that methylphenidate can be used to treat ADHD in kids ages 4-6 if behavioural interventions like increased support at school don’t have an impact.
There are three forms of Ritalin:
- Ritalin: Available in 5, 10, or 20 mg pills, Ritalin is taken multiple times a day, usually before meals. A typical dose is 20-30 mg a day for adults, and 10 mg a day for kids, says Ephraim Lu, PharmD, a pharmacist with Santa Clara Valley Medical Centre in San Jose, California.
- Ritalin LA is used to treat ADHD in kids ages 6-12. The recommended starting dose is 20 mg a day, although it’s also available in 10, 30, and 40 mg dosages. Most people take 20-60 mg a day, Lu says. Your doctor will advise you on usage and dose.
- Ritalin SR is a longer-acting, controlled-release form of the drug that can be taken once daily. It’s approved for people 6 or older.
Ritalin stays in your system for 14-17 hours, says Lu.
Adderall: Dosage, strength, and how long it lasts
Adderall is the brand name of the prescription drug that combines dextroamphetamine and amphetamine.
It’s approved for treating ADHD in people who are 3 years and older, and narcolepsy in people who are 12 years and older.
There are two forms of Adderall:
- Adderall (immediate-release tablet) is taken 2-3 times a day, spaced out 4-6 hours. It can be taken with food or without.
- Adderall XR (extended-release capsule) is taken once a day when the patient wakes up, with or without food.
Kids ages 2-5 typically start on 2.5 mg of Adderall a day, Lu says. People age 6 and up being treated for ADHD may start on 5 mg a day, and the dose can be increased up to 40 mg a day, he says.
People who are being treated for narcolepsy take 5-60 mg of Adderall a day, divided into multiple doses, he says.
Adderall stays in the system longer than Ritalin, lasting 39-69 hours Lu says.
Ritalin vs. Adderall: Side effects and who should not take them
- Fast heart rate
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Stomach pain and nausea
- Headache or dizziness
- Mood changes and irritability
- Sleep troubles or insomnia
Some side effects are particularly concerning. The most severe side effects of Adderall and Ritalin are as follows, Lu says:
- High blood pressure and heart rates: Because these drugs are stimulants, they can impact your cardiovascular system. People who experience chest pain or feel that they might faint should call their doctor immediately. People who have a history of high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease should talk with their doctor about whether Ritalin is safe for them.
- Psychiatric symptoms: These stimulants can exacerbate psychiatric symptoms, like mania or hallucination, or make them occur in people who have not previously had a psychiatric illness. People with a family history of depression or other mental illness should talk to their doctor before taking either of these medications.
- Seizure risk: Both Ritalin and Adderall are linked with increased seizure risk. However, there’s also evidence that people with ADHD have a higher seizure risk, and people on medications reduce that risk.
- Possible growth restrictions: There’s some evidence that children who take these medications might be shorter than they would have been without taking the medications. However, the science is far from conclusive.
- People with a history of high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.
- People with anxiety.
- Pregnant women â€” no medications for ADHD have been proven safe during pregnancy, although they also have not been proven unsafe.
- People who have taken MOAIs, a class of drugs used to treat depression and Parkinson’s disease.
- For people with glaucoma â€” these medications can have a negative impact on vision.
Ritalin vs. Adderall: Which to choose
Adderall and Ritalin are very similar medications, with similar benefits and risks. They are considered equally effective at treating ADHD. About 70% of people treated with stimulants will respond to the medication.
It’s impossible to know, without trying them, which will be the more effective ADHD medication for you or your child, Lu says. He recommends talking with your doctor and using the following criteria to decide which medication to choose:
- The patient’s age: If a child is under 6, only Adderall is FDA-approved.
- Cost: Compare the costs of the medications (and available generics) on your insurance plan.
Often, there is an element of trial and error in determining which ADHD medication will work best for you or your child. Under a doctor’s guidance, Lu recommends trying one or the other for several weeks, and determining whether it’s tolerable and effective. If not, you can talk to your doctor about trying the other.
Choosing an ADHD medication can be difficult, especially when you’re comparing two medications that are as similar as Adderall and Ritalin. Remember these important points:
- Only Adderall is FDA-approved for children ages 3-5, although the CDC and AAP both recommend Ritalin for preschoolers.
- Adderall and Ritalin are considered equally effective at treating ADHD and have similar side effects.
- Both Adderall and Ritalin carry a risk for dependence and addiction. People with a history of substance use disorder should consider a non-stimulant ADHD medication like Strattera, Extended-release clonidine, or.
In addition to exploring treatment with these prescription drugs, Lu says that behavioural interventions can be important for treating ADHD, especially in kids.
“Parent training in behaviour management and other non-pharmacological approaches should be considered before pharmacological treatments,” he says.
Related articles from Health Reference:
- The 3 types of non-stimulant ADHD medications and how they work
- How to recognise the symptoms of ADHD in adults
- How Adderall works and how it helps ADHD
- How to recognise the 3 different types of ADHD and treat them
- 7 science-backed natural remedies that may help with ADHD symptoms
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