Ritalin: What It Is, Uses, Side Effects, Precautions & Abuse

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Ritalin is a drug used mainly to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but what are its risks?

Here, you will learn more about the medication, including its uses, side effects, precautions and potential for abuse.

What is Ritalin?

  • Is Ritalin a controlled substance? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Ritalin is a Class II controlled substance and has a high potential for abuse and dependence.
  • Is Ritalin a stimulant? Yes, it is. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Ritalin works by increasing levels of certain chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain called dopamine and norepinephrine, which help you pay attention, think and stay motivated.
  • How long does Ritalin last? This depends on whether your physician has prescribed immediate release (short-acting) or extended-release (intermediate-acting or long-acting) doses. Short-acting doses can last up to four hours. Extended-release doses vary, with some lasting six to eight hours and others up to 16 hours.

What is Ritalin used for?

Ritalin has two primary uses. The first is for the treatment of ADHD. According to Cleveland Clinic, between 70% and 80% of children with ADHD show fewer ADHD symptoms when taking Ritalin.

Another use for Ritalin is to treat narcolepsy (a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness). With narcolepsy, Ritalin increases wakefulness.

Ritalin side effects

There are two categories of side effects; serious ones that should be reported to your health care provider as soon as possible, and less serious ones, which do not require medical attention.

Serious side effects:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Changes in your heart rhythm, dizziness, chest pain, trouble breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • A prolonged or painful erection
  • Cool, numb or painful fingers or toes that may change color from pale, to blue, to red
  • Signs of stroke such as, sudden numbness or weakness, trouble speaking, confusion, difficulty walking, loss of balance or coordination, dizziness, bad headache or vision changes

Less serious side effects:

  • Anxiety, nervousness
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss

Ritalin precautions

Until you know how the medication affects you, the Cleveland Clinic says don’t drive or operate heavy machinery.

The last dose of the day should be taken at least 4 to 6 hours before bedtime, so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.

Because Ritalin has the potential to be addictive, it should be taken exactly as ordered and kept in a safe place.

Ritalin interactions

According to the Cleveland Clinic, Ritalin should not be taken with:

  • Lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid)
  • MAOIs like Carbex, Eldepryl, Marplan, Nardil, and Parnate
  • Other stimulants for attention disorders, weight loss or to stay awake
  • Procarbazine (Matulane)

In addition, it may also interact with others, such as the following:

  • Atomoxetine (Strattera)
  • Caffeine
  • Some blood pressure, heart disease, and irregular heart beat medications
  • Some medications for depression, anxiety or psychotic disturbances
  • Certain medications for seizures
  • Cold or allergy medications
  • Warfarin (Coumadin)
  • It is important to tell your physician about all medications you take as well as any nutritional supplements, herbs or non-prescription medications. Also, let your doctor know if you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs

Ritalin vs. Adderall: What’s the difference?

Ritalin and Adderall are both stimulants. Adderall is a combination of two drugs, amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, while Ritalin is a methylphenidate. Some people tolerate one more easily than the other.

Ritalin abuse:

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription stimulants such as Ritalin are abused by ingesting higher quantities than ordered, or in a different manner than prescribed. They are also sometimes taken by people who don’t have a prescription.

Because they suppress appetite, they are often abused to help with weight loss. Since they are known to increase wakefulness as well as to increase focus, they are also used to help with studying or to help boost grades. However, according to NIDA, studies have shown that not only does Ritalin not increase attention and focus in those without ADHD, students who abuse stimulants actually have lower grade point averages in high school and college than students who don’t.

In a study reported recently in the journal Science Advances, researcher Elizabeth Bowman and her team from the University of Melbourne, in Australia, offered a reason why. "Our findings suggest that 'smart drugs' increase motivation, but a reduction in quality of effort, crucial to solve complex problems, annuls this effect," they wrote.

Still, because of the rush of dopamine they give the brain, they can induce euphoria. Ritalin is often abused by crushing the pills and snorting it, or mixing it with water and injecting.

The risks of Ritalin abuse include malnutrition, hostility, paranoia and serious cardiovascular problems, including stroke. If Ritalin is taken in higher doses than prescribed, patients can have withdrawals when the dose is lowered.

While Ritalin is an important tool in the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy, it must be taken exactly as ordered and only for the purposes prescribed to avoid addiction.


Cleveland Clinic: Methylphenidate Tablets

Cleveland Clinic: Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Cleveland Clinic: ADHD Medication

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Drug Facts Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines

Drugs.com: How long does Adderall last in your system?

National Library of Medicine: Methylphenidate

U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Highlights of Prescribing Information for Ritalin

Science Advances Not So Smart? Smart drugs increase the level but decrease the quality of cognitive effort

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