Onset of action is a medical term referring to the amount of time it takes for the effects of a drug to become noticeable after administration. Some medications have an extremely rapid onset, with people noticing activity within seconds. Others, like antidepressant drugs, can take days or even weeks to fully take effect. When pharmaceutical companies develop new medications, one of the things they study is the onset of action, to determine how quickly the drug takes effect.
The route used for delivery can make a big difference. For very rapid onset, intravenous medication is often the best choice because it enters the bloodstream directly and the patient does not need to metabolize it to make the drug available. Drugs applied to the mucus membranes can also act very quickly, as the medication quickly seeps into the capillaries and enters the bloodstream. Oral medications work more slowly, plus stomach acid can interfere with some drugs, making this route impossible. Other options can include suppositories, topical creams, and inhalation drugs.
Drug formulation can also be a factor. Many drug companies make extended release formats, allowing people to take a medication and have it slowly take effect over a period of hours. This slow onset can be useful for people who need to take drugs for maintenance of medical conditions. They may take fewer pills because they act longer, and are at a lower risk of an overdose. The delayed delivery can also keep levels of the drug in the body more stable, reducing issues like spikes or falls in concentrations of the medication.
Some drugs with a usually rapid onset of action include sedatives and pain management, where the goal is usually immediate relief for the patient. With drugs for mental health conditions, the drug may take effect slowly because the patient's brain chemistry needs to change for there to be observable effects. Treating conditions like depression and bipolar disorder with medication is not as simple as addressing a problem like inflammation or pain, where a drug can be delivered right to the site to take effect very quickly.
Onset of action is also a consideration when doctors think about how long a drug will linger in a patient's system. Drugs that take effect fast tend to clear the body very quickly, while slow-acting drugs take longer to fully metabolize. This is a concern when evaluating patients for potentially harmful drug interactions; a patient may not be on a medication anymore, but could still be at risk of a reaction, for instance.