Antipsychotic medications can reduce or relieve symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing something that is not there). Formerly known as major tranquilizers and neuroleptics, antipsychotic medications are the main class of drugs used to treat people with schizophrenia. They are also used to treat people with psychosis that occurs in bipolar disorder, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Other uses of antipsychotics include stabilizing moods in bipolar disorder, reducing anxiety in anxiety disorders and reducing tics in Tourette syndrome.
Antipsychotic medications can help to calm and clear confusion in a person with acute psychosis within hours or days, but they can take up to four or six weeks to reach their full effect. These medications can help to control symptoms, but they do not cure the underlying condition. When taken over a longer term, antipsychotics can help to prevent further episodes of psychosis.
While antipsychotic medications can help some people with psychosis and mood disorders, these drugs can have serious side-effects. The aim of medication treatment is to reduce and control symptoms while keeping side-effects at a minimum.
Combining antipsychotic medication with other therapy and support can help people to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Family therapy, peer support, school and job counselling, and housing and employment supports can all be helpful. Some therapists now offer cognitive-behavioural therapy to help people cope with voices and other auditory hallucinations.
Taking care of your physical health is especially important if you take antipsychotic medication. Both schizophrenia and the medications used to treat it can increase the risk of diabetes and other serious health problems. Getting regular checkups and medical care can help you to have good physical health. Eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can also help you to get and stay well.
Psychosis; can be dangerous, frightening, isolating and disabling. Symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions and hallucinations, may come on gradually and build up over time, or they may come on rapidly. People experiencing psychosis may not be aware that the experiences they are having are not normal. To them, what is happening in their minds is very real.
Recognizing and treating psychosis in the early stages greatly improves a person’s ability to recover and to lead a satisfying and rewarding life. Family, friends, colleagues and health providers play an important role in recognizing the signs of psychosis and in encouraging the person to get treatment. However, the symptoms of psychosis can sometimes lead to a breakdown in the person’s relationships with the people who might be most able to help him or her get treatment. Family members and others who support a person with psychosis may wish to seek support themselves, for example, from a family support group.
People with anxiety and mood disorders may benefit from taking antipsychotics in addition to antidepressants or mood stabilizers. When used in this way, antipsychotics may help to control symptoms such as irritable or depressed mood, disorganized thinking, and trouble concentrating and remembering.
Psychosis is believed to be caused, at least in part, by overactivity of a brain chemical called dopamine, and antipsychotics are thought to work by blocking this dopamine effect. This blocking helps to make the symptoms of psychosis—such as voices and delusions—less commanding and preoccupying, but it does not always make them go away completely. People may still hear voices and have delusions, but they are more able to recognize what isn’t real and to focus on other things, such as work, school or family.
Antipsychotic medication can cause unpleasant side-effects, especially when the symptoms are severe and a higher dose of medication is used. Side-effects should become mild or at least tolerable when the dose is reduced and as your body adjusts to the presence of the drug.
Most side-effects will go away when you stop taking the drug. There is a risk, however, of a condition that causes people to make involuntary movements, known as tardive dyskinesia, which can be permanent.
Some people accept the side-effects as a trade-off for the relief these drugs can bring. Others find the side-effects distressing and may choose not to take the medication.
Check the information given to you by your doctor or pharmacist to find out the specific side-effects of any drug you have been prescribed. If you are troubled by any of these effects, it is best to continue to take your medication as prescribed and let your doctor know as soon as possible. Your doctor may:
Side-effects vary depending on the type of medication. More information on side-effects is included with each type of antipsychotic.
You can help to control possible side-effects on your own by:
NOTE: medications are referred to in two ways: by their generic name and by their brand or trade names. Brand names available in Canada appear in brackets.
The main difference between the two types of antipsychotics is that the first generation drugs block dopamine and the second generation drugs block dopamine and also affect serotonin levels. Evidence suggests that some of the second generation drugs have milder movement-related side-effects than the first generation drugs.
Both categories of drugs work equally well overall, although no drug or type of drug works equally well for everyone who takes it. When the same drug is given to a group of people, one-third of that group will find that it works well; another third will find that the drug helps only with some symptoms; and the final third will find that it does not help at all. For this reason, people may need to try different antipsychotics before finding the one that works best for them.
Most of these drugs are given in tablet form, some are liquids and others are given as injections. Some are available as long-lasting (depot) injections, which may be given anywhere from once a week to once a month.
Most people who take antipsychotics over a longer term are now prescribed the second generation (also called atypical) drugs.
The second generation antipsychotics are usually the first choice for the treatment of schizophrenia. Although they may not be officially approved for these other uses, they are sometimes used in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, such as bipolar, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Medications available in this class include risperidone (Risperdal), quetiapine (Seroquel), olanzapine (Zyprexa), ziprasidone (Zeldox), paliperidone (Invega), aripiprazole (Abilify) and clozapine (Clozaril).
Clozapine is exceptional in that it often works even when other medications have failed; however, because it requires monitoring of white blood cell counts, it is not the first choice for treatment.
Possible side-effects of atypical antipsychotics include:
The following list details other side-effects of atypical antipsychotics and which drugs are most likely to least likely to have these effects.
Weight gain, diabetes: clozapine > olanzapine > quetiapine > risperidone > ziprasidone, aripiprazole
Movement effects (e.g., tremor, stiffness, agitation): risperidone > olanzapine, quetiapine, ziprasidone, aripiprazole > clozapine
Sedation (e.g., sleepiness, low energy): clozapine, olanzapine and quetiapine > risperidone, ziprasidone, aripiprazole
Decreased sex drive and function, missed periods, discharge from breast: risperidone > olanzapine, quetiapine > clozapine, ziprasidone
These older medications include chlorpromazine (once marketed as Largactil), flupenthixol (Fluanxol), afluphenazine (Modecate), haloperidol (Haldol), loxapine (Loxapac), perphenazine (Trilafon), pimozide (Orap), trifluoperazine (Stelazine), thiothixene (Navane) and zuclopenthixol (Clopixol).
Side-effects of typical antipsychotics vary depending on the drug and may include drowsiness, agitation, dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, emotional blunting, dizziness, stuffy nose, weight gain, breast tenderness, liquid discharge from breasts, missed periods, muscle stiffness or spasms.
How long should I take antipsychotics?
If you take antipsychotics for psychosis, how long you take them depends on what the psychosis is related to and how many episodes you have experienced. In some situations, you may only need to take this medication until the symptoms of psychosis are relieved. In others, antipsychotics may be used over a longer term to help prevent further episodes.
Drugs that are addictive produce a feeling of euphoria, a strong desire to continue using the drug, and a need to increase the amount used to achieve the same effect. Antipsychotics do not have these effects.
How do I cut down or stop taking antipsychotics?
Whether you want to cut down your dose or stop taking a medication, the same rule applies: go slowly. A sudden change in your dose greatly increases the risk that psychotic symptoms will return or become more intense.
Will antipsychotics interact with other medications?
What if I smoke cigarettes or drink coffee or alcohol while taking antipsychotics?
What if I use street drugs while taking antipsychotics?
Your donation moves us closer to a future where no one is left behind.
Keep your finger on our pulse – latest CAMH news, discoveries and ways to get involved delivered to your inbox.
Please select a newsletter
Please complete the following:
We look forward to keeping you informed, inspired and involved in all things CAMH.
Every donation moves us closer to a future where no one is left behind.