What are antipsychotics?
Antipsychotic medicines are primarily used to manage psychosis. The word “psychosis” is used to describe conditions that affect the mind, and in which there has been some loss of contact with reality, often including delusions (false, fixed beliefs) or hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that are not really there). It can be a symptom of a physical condition such as drug abuse or a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or very severe depression (also known as “psychotic depression”).
Antipsychotic medications are often used in combination with other medications to treat delirium, dementia, and mental health conditions, including:
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Severe Depression
- Eating Disorders
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Antipsychotic medicines do not cure these conditions. They are used to help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
Older or first-generation antipsychotic medications are also called conventional “typical” antipsychotics or “neuroleptics”. Some of the common typical antipsychotics include:
Newer or second generation medications are also called “atypical” antipsychotics. Some of the common atypical antipsychotics include:
Several atypical antipsychotics have a “broader spectrum” of action than the older medications, and are used for treating bipolar depression or depression that has not responded to an antidepressant medication alone.
How do people respond to antipsychotics?
Certain symptoms, such as feeling agitated and having hallucinations, usually go away within days of starting an antipsychotic medication. Symptoms like delusions usually go away within a few weeks, but the full effects of the medication may not be seen for up to six weeks. Every patient responds differently, so it may take several trials of different antipsychotic medications to find the one that works best.
Some people may have a relapse—meaning their symptoms come back or get worse. Usually relapses happen when people stop taking their medication, or when they only take it sometimes. Some people stop taking the medication because they feel better or they may feel that they don’t need it anymore, but no one should stop taking an antipsychotic medication without talking to his or her doctor.When a doctor says it is okay to stop taking a medication, it should be gradually tapered off— never stopped suddenly. Many people must stay on an antipsychotic continuously for months or years in order to stay well; treatment should be personalized for each individual.
What are the possible side effects of antipsychotics?
Antipsychotics have many side effects (or adverse events) and risks. The FDA lists the following side effects of antipsychotic medicines:
- Weight gain (the risk is higher with some atypical antipsychotic medicines)
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
- Low blood pressure
- Uncontrollable movements, such as tics and tremors (the risk is higher with typical antipsychotic medicines)
- A low number of white blood cells, which fight infections
A person taking an atypical antipsychotic medication should have his or her weight, glucose levels, and lipid levels monitored regularly by a doctor.
Typical antipsychotic medications can also cause additional side effects related to physical movement, such as:
- Persistent muscle spasms
Long-term use of typical antipsychotic medications may lead to a condition called tardive dyskinesia (TD). TD causes muscle movements, commonly around the mouth, that a person can’t control. TD can range from mild to severe, and in some people, the problem cannot be cured. Sometimes people with TD recover partially or fully after they stop taking typical antipsychotic medication. People who think that they might have TD should check with their doctor before stopping their medication. TD rarely occurs while taking atypical antipsychotics.
Antipsychotics may cause other side effects that are not included in this list above.