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What is the Difference Between Ritalin and Adderall?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Stimulant medications are used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. These medications are highly effective in providing relief from these two conditions. However, many people abuse stimulant medications for other reasons, causing them to develop an addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “2.1% (or 5 million) misused prescription stimulants at least once.”[1]

There are several different types of stimulant medication, but the most common ones are Adderall and Ritalin. While these drugs have many similarities, there are also some differences you should be aware of. Whether you are using these substances as a treatment for ADHD or abusing them, you should be aware of the basics about both medications.

What is Adderall?

Adderall is a central nervous system stimulant that is primarily used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. This substance is only available by prescription, however, some people may obtain illicit forms of the drug on the street. Adderall is a combination medication that includes amphetamine and dextroamphetamine.

Adderall changes your brain chemistry to help your neurotransmitters effectively send messages between nerve cells in your brain, leading to improvements in focus and impulsivity associated with ADHD.

Since Adderall is known to increase one’s ability to focus, many college students abuse it to study longer. When someone who does not have ADHD or narcolepsy uses Adderall, the substance produces an excess amount of dopamine which can cause people to feel high, beginning the cycle of drug abuse and addiction.[2]

What is Ritalin?

Ritalin is the brand name for methylphenidate, a central nervous system stimulant that is primarily used to treat the same conditions as Adderall. Ritalin works to treat conditions like ADHD by increasing the availability of norepinephrine and dopamine in your central nervous system, speeding up your brain activity.

People who suffer from ADHD and narcolepsy need this increase in neurotransmitters to lessen their symptoms. Someone without these conditions already has enough of these chemicals, which means taking Ritalin will provide them with extra energy and a significantly increased ability to focus. Over time, abusing Ritalin without having one of these conditions will lead to dependency and addiction.

How are Adderall and Ritalin Different?

The way that Ritalin and Adderall affect the brain and reduce ADHD or narcolepsy symptoms is generally the same. Additionally, both pose a significant risk of developing a substance use disorder when you abuse the substances recreationally.

While there are many similarities between Adderall and Ritalin, there are also some differences to be aware of. The main difference between the two substances is that Ritalin contains methylphenidate while Adderall contains amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Another important difference to consider is the effects these medications can have on people with certain conditions.

If you have one of the following medical conditions, you must discuss it with your doctor before taking Adderall:

  • Pregnancy
  • History of drug abuse
  • History of agitated states
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Advanced arteriosclerosis

On the other hand, people with the following medical conditions should avoid Ritalin:

  • A history of agitation, anxiety, or tension
  • Glaucoma
  • Motor tics or Tourette’s syndrome
  • Pregnancy

Adderall and Ritalin also differ in the interactions they have with other drugs. Both substances cause negative side effects when mixed with different medications. Knowing which medications interact with Adderall and Ritalin can give you an idea of which medication is best for you, especially if you have other prescriptions you must take.

The medications you should avoid when taking Adderall include:

  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
  • Acidifying agents
  • Alkalizing agents like sodium bicarbonate
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • High blood pressure drugs

When taking Ritalin, you should avoid the following substances:

  • MAOIs
  • High blood pressure drugs
  • Coumarin anticoagulants
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressants

Understanding the Dangers of Abusing Adderall or Ritalin

Adderall and Ritalin are mostly abused by young adults who are in school and looking for something to help them study for long hours. However, other people may abuse these substances to experience a rush of euphoria accompanied by a significant increase in energy. Many people describe the “high” they experience when abusing Adderall or Ritalin as similar to the effects of cocaine.

Abusing these substances can be extremely dangerous, as they increase the activity in your brain substantially. This can cause an array of concerning side effects and even lead to unintentional overdoses if you abuse the medications in high doses.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Prescription stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy. Their misuse, including overdose, can also lead to psychosis, anger, paranoia, and heart, nerve, or stomach problems. These issues could lead to a heart attack or seizures.”[3]

Even further, abusing prescription stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin will eventually lead to addiction. Once you are addicted, your body becomes accustomed to the presence of the substances. If you attempt to suddenly stop using the substance, you will experience potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that require professional detoxification services.

Find Help for Adderall and Ritalin Abuse

If you or a loved one are addicted to prescription stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin, recovery is possible. At Carolina Center for Recovery, we can provide you with the education, tools, and support you need to attain sobriety and maintain long-term recovery. By using a combination of evidence-based behavioral therapies, medical treatments, peer support, and relapse prevention planning, we can provide you with a strong foundation of sobriety and prepare you for independent living.

To learn more about our stimulant addiction treatment programs, contact Carolina Center for Recovery today.