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What Is Ritalin? — Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

These days it can seem that ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are diagnosed as much as the common cold. And with this diagnosis typically comes a prescription for Ritalin.

What Is Ritalin?

Ritalin belongs to a class of drugs called methylphenidates, which are central nervous system stimulants used to treat ADHD, ADD, and narcolepsy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), methylphenidates affect chemicals in the brain and the nerves that contribute to impulse control and hyperactivity. These stimulants work by increasing the chemicals in one’s brain that regulate thinking and attention.

How Is Ritalin Used?

CHADD, the leading national non-profit organization for children and adults with ADHD, recommends a comprehensive approach for treating ADD and ADHD. Following their guidance, Ritalin and other medications should be used as part of a total treatment program.

First comes diagnosis. Then, after you or your child has completed the assessments given by a trained ADHD mental health provider, a treatment plan will be put into place that addresses and prioritizes problem areas. These can include school or work challenges, depression, anxiety, anger management, learning concerns, and relationship issues.

Generally, more than one intervention will be needed and implemented as part of the treatment. Here are a few of the primary concerns that might be addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, based on personal needs, availability of resources, and prioritization of problem areas:

  • Education on ADD/ADHD disorders, causes, diagnosis, and courses of treatment
  • Mental health counseling 
  • Behavioral therapy to manage current behaviors and acquire new skills
  • Parent training programs to help address a child’s behaviors and how to handle difficult situations
  • Information about education modifications and support
  • Medication prescriptions and monitoring 

How Is Ritalin Taken?

As with all medications, take Ritalin precisely as prescribed by your doctor. Your doctor may occasionally change your dosage, so be sure to follow all directions on the prescription label and read all instruction sheets or medication guides.

There are two main forms of Ritalin:

  • Ritalin IR (immediate-release) tablets are typically taken two to three times a day and at least 30 minutes before eating.
  • Ritalin LA (extended-release) capsules are taken once a day, first thing in the morning. They can be taken with or without food.

Both forms of Ritalin should be stored in a tightly closed container at room temperature and kept away from light, heat, and moisture.

From time to time, your doctor may consider stopping your Ritalin treatment to monitor your ADD/ADHD symptoms. Your healthcare provider will check on your symptoms, treatment, and heart and blood pressure.

Misusing Ritalin, as with any methylphenidate drug, can be addictive, potentially leading to overdose and death. It is important to keep your Ritalin in a place where no one can take it. In addition, selling or giving away your prescriptions is against the law.

What Are the Side Effects of Ritalin?

Common side effects of Ritalin can include fast heart rate, loss of appetite, dry mouth, mood changes, stomach pain, or headaches. This is not a complete list, and there may be other side effects to be aware of, so talk to your doctor and read all information provided to you.

Get emergency help right away if you experience signs of an allergic reaction such as difficulty breathing, hives, or swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat. Also, if you have symptoms of serotonin syndrome, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, twitching, sweating, shivering, or hallucinations, seek medical help immediately.

What Are Signs of Ritalin Abuse?

Although Ritalin has demonstrated significant efficacy in treating ADD/ADHD, it has a high potential for abuse. Because it can be addictive and habit-forming, tell your doctor if you have a history of drug or alcohol addiction, especially if your drugs of choice are amphetamines or cocaine.

Ritalin can be especially dangerous as a recreational drug for several reasons. One is that recreational users tend to take a much larger dosage than a doctor would prescribe. The other main reason is how recreational users use the drug, typically by crushing the pills to either snort or inject them, delivering the medicine to the body much quicker than if swallowed.

Misuse of stimulants, including Ritalin, can cause a heart attack, stroke, or sudden death in people with a heart defect, heart disease, or high blood pressure. It can also cause addiction, overdose, or death. Get help immediately if you or a loved one have any of the following:

Signs of Heart Problems

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Shortness of breath

Signs of Circulation Problems

  • Numbness, pain, or discoloration of your fingers or toes
  • Unexplained wounds on your fingers or toes
  • Skin color changes

Signs of Psychosis

  • Aggression/hostility
  • Paranoia
  • Unusual thoughts
  • New behavior problems
  • Hearing or seeing things that are not real (hallucinations)

If you suspect an overdose, seek emergency medical attention because it can be fatal. Some overdose symptoms can include confusion, agitation, tremors, muscle twitches, hallucinations, dilated pupils, fever, pounding in your neck or ears, fainting, seizure, convulsions, or coma.

Are Ritalin and Adderall the Same?

Both Ritalin and Adderall effectively reduce the symptoms of ADD and ADHD, are classified as CNS stimulants, and work by increasing the concentration of dopamine and norepinephrine. However, these two medications do not contain the same ingredients. 

Your doctor will work with you on a case-by-case basis to determine which medication is better for you or your child to help improve ADD and ADHD symptoms such as inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.

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