Ritalin Abuse

Ritalin is a Schedule II stimulant used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Ritalin has a high abuse potential and bears numerous side effects, such as insomnia, stomachache, headache and anorexia. Despite the lack of FDA-approved medications to treat a Ritalin addiction, psychotherapy can help a person recover.
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Ritalin, brand name of the drug methylphenidate, is a prescription stimulant that increases focus in people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The medication increases concentration in parts of the brain that affect reasoning and problem-solving.

Fast Facts: Ritalin

Abuse Potential
Scientific Name
Drug Class
Street Names
Kiddie Cocaine, Diet Coke, Rids, Skittles, Smarties, Vitamin R, Kibbles and Bits
Side Effects
Irregular Heartbeat, Fever, Confusion, Anxiety, Twitching, Psychosis
How It's Used
Injected, Swallowed, Snorted
Legal Status
Schedule II

It affected the drug market much like Adderall and OxyContin, two other popular prescription drugs. Over time, methylphenidate was resold illegally as a recreational stimulant to people unaffected by ADHD. Today, Ritalin bottles can be found in homes, workplaces, high schools and college dormitories across the United States.

Patient taking prescription from Doctor

Ritalin is one of the most prescribed drugs in the country, and one of the most freely consumed as well.

How People Gain Access to Ritalin

People with ADHD can receive a script for Ritalin from their doctor. Generally, a physician uses a diagnostic criterion when prescribing the drug. However, illicit use of the drug is not uncommon, and many people — especially young people — are gaining access to the medication for recreational use.

Prescription stimulant misuse is common among high school and college students. Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, medical director of the UF Health Florida Recovery Center in Gainesville, Florida, said that many college students are smart enough to describe symptoms of ADHD to receive these drugs. Some students sell these medications to their peers.

“Young people are finding ways to purchase these compounds illegally,” Dr. Panayotis Thanos, senior research scientist for the Research Institute on Addictions in Buffalo, New York, told DrugRehab.com. “Just like with any other illicit drug, they are available on [the street].”

In fact, a 2005 study published in the journal Addiction found that 54 percent of college students who were prescribed stimulants to treat ADHD were asked to give, sell or trade them to others.

One liberal arts college reported that half of students knew someone who took Ritalin for fun, and 16 percent had used it themselves — most of whom had tried snorting it. The medication has led to addiction and, in some cases, death.

Why Students Are Using Ritalin

Many students use prescription stimulants such as Ritalin at the end of a semester to boost concentration for studying.

Students also use these drugs to:
  • Overcome poor sleeping habits
  • Ease stress caused by pressure to succeed academically
  • Deal with social and financial demands
  • Improve athletic performance

54 percent of college students who were prescribed stimulants to treat ADHD were asked to give, sell or trade them to others.

Source: a 2005 study published in the journal Addiction

According to Thanos, young people say Ritalin helps them stay up late and focus on studying. This has created a misconception among countless students who believe the drug will enhance their academic performance.

“If you were to take a drug that allows you to have more energy, people perceive that as positive,” said Thanos. “There are young people that think there are no risks or effects [of illicit Ritalin use].”

Prescription stimulant misuse has increased over the last two decades, especially among teens and young adults. From 2000 to 2006, nonprescription use of Ritalin and Concerta, another brand of methylphenidate, in the United States rose, with the largest percent increase occurring among college-aged students.

Ritalin use among teens fluctuated from 2013 to 2016, according to the latest Monitoring the Future survey, which examines drug, alcohol and cigarette use and related attitudes among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. The report found that a lower percentage of 10th- and 12th-graders used the medication in the past year in 2016 than in 2015.

How Ritalin Makes You Feel

You may hear about the drug in your classroom or study group. Much like Adderall, Ritalin can give students an edge when taking exams or writing papers. Students also take the pill because of the buzz it renders. If taken in high doses, the drug’s effects can be similar to those of some narcotics.

High school and college students flock to these pills, seeing them as a study aid and general stimulant. While students may think they’re taking a relatively harmless drug, they’re actually establishing a hazardous relationship with a serious medication.

Heart Problems and Other Side Effects of Ritalin Abuse

Many side effects of nonmedical methylphenidate use exist, ranging from skin rashes to seizures. Severity is relative to the drug dosage and frequency of intake.

A feeling of euphoria, alertness and wakefulness are the expected benefits of a methylphenidate dose. However, negative effects may promptly negate the benefits.

Side effects of Ritalin include:
  • Headache
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Confusion and paranoia
  • Fever and sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle twitching
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Formication (the feeling of bugs under the skin)

Heavy Ritalin abuse can result in strokes and heart problems. Like other intense stimulants, the medication elevates heart rate and blood pressure and weakens heart muscles. Over time, this can leave the heart vulnerable to failure.

Irregular heartbeat from Ritalin use has been responsible for multiple reported deaths in children over the years.

Ritalin also stunts growth in children and teens. One study showed that average monthly weight gain was reduced by 25 percent in children taking the drug. In addition to suppressing appetite, Ritalin abuse causes dysfunction in the production of vital growth hormones. This can impede growth processes in the brain, heart and lungs — not just height and weight.

Thanos led a study that examined possible side effects of Ritalin in those without ADHD by monitoring neurological changes in rats that received methylphenidate. The report found that illicit use of the drug changes brain chemistry, leading to sleep disruption, risk-taking behavior and weight loss.

“This study highlights the potential long-range risks college students take in using Ritalin for a quick study boost,” Thanos said in a statement.

Dangers of Snorting Ritalin

Snorting Ritalin has become popular among teens and young adults, who may believe it is a safer alternative to using cocaine. This method of consumption has immediate euphoric effects, creating a sudden burst of energy and increasing alertness.

Crushing and inhaling Ritalin can be dangerous. The medication enters the bloodstream at higher concentrations when snorted or injected than when swallowed, increasing its potency.

Snorting Ritalin can cause serious health problems, including:
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased aggression
  • Circulation problems
  • Respiratory problems
  • Toxic shock

Additionally, snorting Ritalin can deteriorate the membrane separating the nasal passage and the brain. This can cause nosebleeds and damage the nasal cartilage. In extreme cases, snorting Ritalin can lead to death.

How Long Does Ritalin Stay in Your System?

After you take a Ritalin tablet, traces of the medication can be found in the urine, oral fluid and plasma. However, the time it takes for the drug to be eliminated from the body varies. Typically, methylphenidate is cleared from the body within a few days of use.

How Long Does Ritalin Stay in Your Urine?

Within two to four days of taking immediate-release Ritalin, between 78 and 97 percent of methylphenidate is eliminated through the urine. During this time, between 1 and 3 percent of the drug is excreted through the feces as metabolites.

How Long Does Ritalin Stay in Your Saliva?

According to a 2010 study published in the journal Clinical Chemistry, the concentration of extended-release methylphenidate in oral fluid reached peak levels about two hours after ingestion, but the medication was undetectable in saliva after 24 hours.

How Long Does Ritalin Stay in Your Blood?

The Clinical Chemistry report indicated that extended-release methylphenidate was undetectable in blood plasma 24 hours after administration. Researchers found that the amount of methylphenidate detected in saliva samples was much higher than the amount found in the blood.

How Addictive Is Ritalin?

Ritalin has helped many people control symptoms of AHDH, including focus problems and fidgetiness. If used properly and in low doses, the medication can help control the disorder. But for people without ADHD who take the medication, this potent drug can be addictive and severely harmful to the brain.

Dependency is an inherent risk in people diagnosed with ADHD. Withdrawal symptoms can begin hours after each dose and cause erratic behavior and cravings in children. The most dangerous effects appear quickly and unexpectedly.

Ritalin can be as addictive as cocaine if abused, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. Both drugs are similar in chemical structure and increase dopamine levels in the brain. The effects of cocaine occur more quickly, but Ritalin abuse can be just as addictive if the drug is injected, snorted or taken in high doses.

Dr. Yong Kim, lead author of a Ritalin study by NIDA, said the structural and chemical effects of Ritalin are greater than those of cocaine in some parts of the brain.

In 2006, Dr. John Kulli filed a petition to the FDA to reformulate drugs such as methylphenidate into a nonpill form to make them uncrushable, removing the ability to snort or inject the medication. Kulli theorized that this would drastically cut down on recreational use, abuse and addiction. His petition was rejected.

Meanwhile, doctors continue to prescribe Ritalin. Although the drug was marketed as an effective treatment for ADHD, doctors began to misdiagnose patients and overprescribe Ritalin. And it’s difficult to track the medication, which could be resold among friends or co-workers of the patient, once the prescription has been filled.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that doctors in the United States may be overprescribing stimulants such as Ritalin to young children with ADHD. Currently, it is challenging to ensure every patient prescribed Ritalin actually has ADHD. With every misdiagnosis, doctors put patients — and whomever patients decide to share the pills with — in harm’s way.

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Ritalin vs. Adderall

People often confuse Ritalin with another central nervous system stimulant: Adderall.

Adderall, like Ritalin, treats ADHD and narcolepsy, has been used illicitly and can lead to trouble sleeping, irritability and heart problems. Both drugs increase norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, improving hyperactivity, impulsiveness and inattention. However, Ritalin works more quickly and stays in your system longer than Adderall does.

The medications comprise different ingredients. Ritalin is a brand name of methylphenidate, and Adderall contains a mixture of amphetamine salts. Researchers have compared the drugs, but most of these studies were conducted prior to 1996 and included small patient groups.

A misconception among young people is that these drugs can improve study performance. They both increase attentiveness, but research indicates that students who abuse them perform worse academically than those who do not use them. Reports also suggest these medications do not appear to boost learning ability.

Treating and Preventing Ritalin Abuse

The FDA has not approved any medication to treat a stimulant use disorder. Treating a Ritalin addiction typically involves psychotherapy. Behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management and the Matrix model may help people overcome Ritalin addiction.

Behavioral therapies that may help people overcome Ritalin addiction:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people to recognize triggers and equips them with healthy tools to cope with temptation and avoid a relapse.
Contingency Management
Contingency management rewards people for not using drugs or alcohol. Rewards may include movies or dinner vouchers.
Matrix Model
The Matrix model merges behavioral therapy, family education, individual counseling, 12-step programs and drug testing to help people get over their Ritalin addiction.

To avoid Ritalin addiction, take the medication as directed by your doctor. Taking more than the recommended dosage or using the drug longer than ordered by a physician can make it habit-forming.

A 2000 study published in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry asserted that Ritalin abuse can be mitigated with the help of regulatory measures. Pharmacies are encouraged to limit the quantity of Ritalin they dispense to patients.

Parents can count Ritalin pills to make sure their children are not taking more medication than required. They can also request that their doctor prescribe nonstimulant ADHD medications, such as Strattera and Intuniv.

Education about methylphenidate is important in reducing Ritalin abuse. Medical providers should speak to patients about abuse patterns and the consequences of Ritalin abuse.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Matt Gonzales
Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Matt Gonzales is a writer and researcher for DrugRehab.com. He graduated with a degree in journalism from East Carolina University and began his professional writing career in 2011. Matt covers the latest drug trends and shares inspirational stories of people who have overcome addiction. Certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in health literacy, Matt leverages his experience in addiction research to provide hope to those struggling with substance use disorders.

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