Ritalin and Dexedrine: Choosing the Right ADHD Medication

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Ritalin and Dexedrine: Introduction

Treatment for ADHD may include behavioral therapy and neurofeedback, but many struggling with the disorder also take medication which can effectively address inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Ritalin and Dexedrine are two popular brands of ADHD medications. While both are stimulants, comparing Ritalin vs. Dexedrine reveals differences in their’ benefits and side effects.

The Basics of Ritalin

Often considered the granddaddy of ADHD medications, Ritalin was first developed in 1944. It was originally used to treat chronic fatigue, depression and narcolepsy in the 1950s and 1960s. Ritalin’s status as an ADHD treatment rose during the following two decades, but it was in the 1990s that its use really took off. According to data compiled by the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at the University of Maryland, Ritalin sales in the U.S. increased 500 percent from 1991 to 1999.

Ritalin is actually a brand name for the drug methylphenidate, a stimulant that works by increases the activity of natural substances in the brain such as dopamine that play a part in controlling attention and behavior. It is available in both immediate release and long-acting formulas. Immediate release formulas might need to be taken 2-3 times per day while long-acting pills only need to be taken once daily.

Both children and adults may be prescribed Ritalin to increase focus and attention while decreasing impulsivity and hyperactivity. The use of methylphenidate, though beneficial for many, also comes with the risk of side effects. Common side effects of Ritalin reported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty sleeping

More serious side effects may include eyesight changes, slowed growth and seizures, particularly in those with a history of seizures. Heart-related and psychiatric problems have also been reported by those taking Ritalin. Patients should consult a doctor as quickly as possible if they experience any sign of heart problems such as shortness of breath, fainting or chest pain.

Using Dexedrine to Treat ADHD

Like Ritalin, Dexedrine is a stimulant medicine that increases the activity of chemicals in the brain that are involved in controlling attention and behavior. First approved for the treatment of ADHD in 1976, Dexedrine is the brand name of dextroamphetamine. The drug is available as a liquid, tablet or extended release capsule. Depending on the form prescribed, individuals may take Dexedrine once a day or 2-3 times daily.

As with methylphenidate, Dexedrine can be used by children and adults to increase attention and focus. It has also been shown to be effective in decreasing hyperactivity and impulsivity. The FDA notes several common side effects of Dexedrine:

  • Increased heart beat
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Dry Mouth
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Upset stomach

Serious side effects are similar to those in Ritalin: changes in eyesight, slowed growth and seizures. Also like Ritalin, heart-related problems and psychiatric side effects have been reported by some users.

Ritalin vs. Dexedrine: Which is Better?

Since Ritalin and Dexedrine work in similar ways, it may seem as though they are interchangeable. However, there are some differences that should be considered before starting a prescription.

The FDA warns that Dexedrine should not be taken by anyone with heart disease, moderate to severe high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism or a history of drug abuse. The FDA medication guide for Ritalin lists no such restrictions. The FDA does not recommend either Dexedrine or Ritalin for children younger than 6 years of age.

Writing for the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Dr. Laura Dean notes several differences in the pros and cons of Ritalin and Dexedrine. For example, immediate release formulas of dextroamphetamines, such as Dexedrine, appear to suppress weight gain compared to the immediate release formula of methylphenidates including Ritalin. Meanwhile, Ritalin appears to be associated with a slowing of height growth.

There is also some evidence that immediate release Ritalin may have benefits for children with tic disorders or bipolar disorders. For adults, there is limited evidence that short acting stimulants are more effective than long-acting formulas. However, there is no indication that adults tolerate one stimulant, whether it is Ritalin or Dexedrine, better than another.

As with other medical decisions, the choice of Ritalin vs. Dexedrine should be made in close consultation with a physician. Each individual may react to medication differently, and dosing is highly individualized. In addition, both Ritalin and Dexedrine are federally controlled substances and can be habit forming. Before beginning any prescription for ADHD, be sure to inform your doctor of all your current medications and health concerns.

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


FDA Medication Guide, Ritalin

FDA Medication Guide, Dexedrine

Center for Substance Abuse Research, Ritalin

Dean, Laura. Comparing Drugs for ADHD, National Center of Biotechnology Information. 2010