Antipsychotic drugs treat psychosis, a collection of symptoms that affect your ability to tell what’s real and what isn’t. These drugs are a critical part of treating conditions that involve psychosis. Without them, many of these conditions are so disruptive or severe that they need 24/7 psychiatric care.
Antipsychotic medications are drugs that mainly treat psychosis-related conditions and symptoms. But taking an antipsychotic drug doesn’t always mean you have a symptom or condition related to psychosis. That’s because these drugs are very important for treating other conditions, too.
Psychosis isn’t a medical condition. It’s a collection of symptoms that indicate your brain isn’t processing certain kinds of information as it should. The symptoms all involve a disconnection from reality. The main symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. It can also involve disorganized thoughts and actions, or dampen how you show emotions.
There are two main types of antipsychotic medications:
First-generation (typical) antipsychotics
Second-generation (atypical) antipsychotics
All antipsychotics work by changing how your brain uses certain signals known as neurotransmitters. Cells throughout your nervous system have receptors, which are like locks, on their surfaces. Neurotransmitters are like keys, and they have very specific shapes.
If a neurotransmitter with the right shape attaches to a receptor, it can activate the cell and tell it to do something. Some neurotransmitters have nearly the right shape, but they don’t activate the cell. Instead, they block neurotransmitters that could activate the cell.
Antipsychotics rely on the lock-and-key system for neurotransmitters and receptors in different ways:
Antipsychotics treat conditions that cause or involve psychosis. Those include:
Providers may treat other conditions with antipsychotics, but those drugs aren’t their main treatment. These conditions include:
Antipsychotic medications see widespread use. Approximately 4 million adults in the U.S. have a prescription for at least one of these medications.
Antipsychotic medications have several benefits, including:
Antipsychotics are useful, but there are possible drawbacks. Antipsychotic medications can have various side effects and complications, including:
Other less serious side effects can include:
Some antipsychotic medications are for short-term use only. Others, you can take for years or even indefinitely. This can vary depending on the medication you take, why you take it, other conditions you have or medications you take, side effects that you experience or want to avoid and much more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you what they recommend when it comes to how long you take one of these medications.
Some antipsychotic drugs can cause you to feel tired or sleepy. You should talk to your doctor about whether or not you can drive after you take one of these drugs. They can tell you when it’s safe to drive and what you can do to minimize side effects that could affect driving.
Several conditions can get worse if you take antipsychotics. Fortunately, there are many different antipsychotic medications, so your healthcare provider can likely recommend one that has little or no risk of worsening another medical issue you have.
If you have any of the following, it’s important to tell your healthcare provider:
Antipsychotics may cause serious side effects or complications for some people. Your healthcare provider can tell you which symptoms to watch for and what you should do if you notice them.
In general, you should call your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you notice any of the following symptoms:
You should get immediate help if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others, or if you suspect someone you know is in danger of trying to harm themselves or others. Resources that can help include:
There’s no single answer to these questions. That’s because the best or safest antipsychotic drug for you may be different from the best drug for someone else, even someone else with the same condition. The biggest factors that determine what drug is best for you include:
Your healthcare provider is the best source of information about which drugs they recommend. They can help you understand why they recommend a drug and what you should expect.
The most commonly prescribed first-generation antipsychotic drugs are:
The most commonly prescribed second-generation antipsychotics are:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Antipsychotics are a key medication for treating psychosis, a collection of symptoms that affect your understanding of what’s real and what isn’t. Psychosis symptoms can happen with many conditions, and these conditions can be extremely severe and disruptive.
Antipsychotics offer a treatment option that can help people who would otherwise need in-hospital mental healthcare. That means antipsychotics can help people experiencing psychosis-related conditions return to their homes, lives and routines.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/12/2023.
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