Ritalin: What you need to know

Ritalin is one of the oldest and best-known medications for ADHD (sometimes called ADD). It belongs to a group of medications known as stimulants. These are the most widely prescribed drugs to treat ADHD. They’re also the most effective for the majority of kids with ADHD.

Here’s what you need to know about Ritalin.

What Is Ritalin?

Ritalin is a stimulant drug that’s been used to treat ADHD since the 1960s. It’s a short-acting medication, but it also comes in an extended-release formula.

Ritalin is a methylphenidate-based drug. Like all stimulants, it works by improving the way parts of the brain communicate. That improves attention and impulse control.

Ritalin Side Effects

Ritalin has the same potential side effects as all stimulant drugs. The most common are decreased appetite and trouble falling asleep at night. There are other, less common side effects, including:

  • Headache and stomachache

  • Irritability and moodiness

  • Nervousness

  • Weight Loss

Side effects of Ritalin can impact kids differently. It often depends on whether they’re taking the short- or long-acting version of Ritalin. If side effects are a problem, talk to your child’s doctor. You might need to fine-tune the medication or change medications entirely. That’s especially true if your child has these rarer side effects.

See a list of signs your child’s medication may need adjusting.

Ritalin Dosage and Timing

Ritalin is a short-acting drug that works for three to four hours. It also comes in an extended-release preparation, known as Ritalin LA (long acting). Extended-release means that it’s released slowly into the body throughout the day. Ritalin LA is designed to work for six to 10 hours.

Some kids metabolize drugs differently. So, the length of time that medication lasts varies. Ritalin LA generally doesn’t last as long as Concerta, which only comes in an extended-release form. Concerta is another methylphenidate medication.

Ritalin comes in tablet form. It’s available in three dosages: 5mg, 10mg and 20mg. Kids usually take Ritalin two or three times a day. Doctors may also prescribe it as a booster for after school.

Ritalin LA is available in 10mg, 20mg, 30mg and 40mg capsules. The capsule is swallowed whole. Or it can be opened and the contents sprinkled on food or in drinks. This can be helpful for kids who have trouble swallowing pills. (There’s also a methylphenidate drug that comes in liquid form. It’s called Quillivant.)

Common Questions Parents Have About Ritalin

Parents often have questions about ADHD medication. Here are answers to some common questions about Ritalin.

What’s the generic name for Ritalin?

The generic name for Ritalin is methylphenidate hydrochloride. The generic is considered to be as effective as the brand-name version. There are some differences, however. One is that the generic version of Ritalin LA comes in a 60mg capsule, which isn’t available in the brand-name version.

Learn about the difference between brand-name and generic medications for ADHD.

Is Ritalin addictive? Does it lead to substance abuse?

Research shows that ADHD drugs aren’t addictive when they’re taken as prescribed. In fact, taking medication for ADHD symptoms can actually lower the overall risk of substance abuse and addiction.

It’s different when people who don’t have ADHD take stimulants. Using these drugs at high doses without a prescription puts them at risk for abuse and addiction. That’s particularly true of amphetamine-based drugs like Adderall. That’s why it’s important for kids with ADHD not to share their medication.

Like all stimulant drugs, Ritalin is a controlled substance. There are restrictions in place to reduce the likelihood of abuse. For example, your pharmacy can only fill prescriptions one month at a time.

Read more about ADHD medication abuse and misuse.

Can Ritalin help with anxiety?

Many kids with ADHD have anxiety. Ritalin and other ADHD medications aren’t meant to treat anxiety. In fact, in a small number of cases (less than 5 percent), stimulants can make anxiety worse. But if kids feel anxious because of their ADHD symptoms, treating those ADHD symptoms may help reduce anxiety.

Hear from an expert on whether Ritalin affects anxiety.

What if Ritalin keeps my child from falling asleep?

Stimulants do delay sleep by about 40 minutes in a significant number of kids. If this becomes a problem for your child, talk to your child’s doctor. It might help to adjust the timing or dosage to lessen this common side effect. The doctor might also recommend trying a different medication.

It can also help to look at your child’s bedtime routine. Kids with ADHD often have trouble falling asleep, even if they’re not taking medication. A calming ritual combined with keeping the phone out of your child’s room may help.

Read an expert’s advice for helping kids with ADHD wind down at night.

How will I know if Ritalin is working for my child?

Typically, you can tell within days whether the medication is helping. If your child is sick or having a bad day, that can impact behavior even with medication. But overall, you should see a positive trend. You will also want to talk to your child’s teachers and other caregivers to see if they’ve noticed a difference.

It can help to identify specific behaviors related to your child’s ADHD that you hope will change. Let’s say your child is constantly losing things. That problem may not disappear entirely. But if the medication is working, you may notice that it happens far less often.

This printable ADHD medication log can help you monitor how well the medication is working.

What if Ritalin isn’t working for my child?

Finding the right drug and dosage can take time. If you don’t notice a significant change in symptoms, talk to your child’s doctor. Ideally, you should have a follow-up appointment scheduled when you leave with your first prescription.

Based on your feedback, your doctor may change the dose or try a different type of stimulant. Or the doctor might suggest switching from a stimulant to a non-stimulant drug. This fine-tuning can take several appointments.

ADHD medication is effective for the majority of kids who take it. But there are kids for whom it doesn’t work. Whether or not it’s effective, it’s important to know there are other treatments that might help. That includes behavior therapy.

You can also consider whether your child needs accommodations or supports at school.

How can I decide if my child should take Ritalin?

Deciding whether or not to put your child on medication for ADHD is a personal decision. Researching your options and getting the facts is a good start. You may also want to get your child’s input, if appropriate. To help you decide about medication, ask yourself these questions.

If you decide not to use medication, or if it doesn’t work well for your child, there are other ways to help your child. Understand how behavior therapy gives kids and parents tools to work on challenges. And learn about medication alternatives.

Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.

Key takeaways

  • Ritalin is available in both short- and long-acting versions.

  • When taken as prescribed, Ritalin is not addictive.

  • If you have questions or concerns about Ritalin, it’s important to talk to your child’s doctor.


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