So Many Meds for ADHD! How Can You Tell Them Apart?

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The Two Main Stimulants

The two main meds for ADHD are Ritalin and Adderall. Adderall is an actual amphetamine and Ritalin is derived from one. Although Adderall is more likely than Ritalin to cause insomnia, it is less likely to cause anxiety and agitation, which are both common Ritalin side effects. Both of these drugs are available in short-acting and extended release varieties, although they may be under different names. The short-acting forms of the meds are available in generic form, which usually cuts down on cost.

How do these meds work? Both Ritalin and Adderall are stimulants, but paradoxically they have a calming effect on people with ADHD. They work by increasing the brain levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine which is associated with attention as well as pleasure and movement. The drugs promote a slow and steady release of the neurotransmitter which is very similar to the brain’s natural production of the chemical. It is believed that they can improve symptoms in about 70% of people with ADHD.

Derivatives of These Stimulants

The extended release versions of Ritalin and Adderall may come under different names or in different forms. For example, Concerta and Metadate CD are essentially extended release forms of Ritalin, whereas Adderall XR (eXtended Release) is one of the only med for ADHD that can be opened and sprinkled into foods such as apple sauce for children who cannot yet swallow pills.

Methylin Chewable Tablet and Oral Solution may also be helpful for children who cannot take pills successfully, since they are not in pill form. Another option for these children is Dayrana, a Ritalin patch that gives kids more flexibility than most other medicines for ADHD. For example, the child can wear the patch for slightly longer on some days than others if needed.

Two additional meds for ADHD are Vyanase - a new ADHD medication that is similar to Adderall - and Focalin, which has the same active ingredient as Ritalin (dexmethylphenidate hydrochloride).


Children who cannot tolerate stimulant meds due to side effects, or who do not see improvement from stimulant meds, may try a non-stimulant. The main non-stimulant available is Strattera. This medication seems to be the most helpful for children who have anxiety in addition to their ADHD. It is important to realize, however, that there is an FDA warning that suggests that caregivers should carefully monitor their child for warning signs of suicide while taking the drug. This does not mean that children should stop taking it, but that caregivers should be vigilant while it is being taken.

Some children with ADHD may take antihypertensives (blood pressure medicine) in order to treat aggression and impulsivity. Others may take antidepressants in order to improve extreme negative moods or clinical depression related to the disorder.

Choosing meds for ADHD can be difficult, and some people believe that many kids (or adults) with ADHD are overmedicated. But for those who are correctly diagnosed, ADHD meds can help.

Disclaimer: The content of this article is for information purposes only and is not intended to replace sound medical advice and opinion.


WebMD. “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - Medications.”

WebMD. “Stimulants for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Stimulant ADHD Medications - Methylphenidate and Amphetamines.”

Keep Kids Healthy. “ADHD Medications.”