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What Is an Antipsychotic?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Feb 08, 2024
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An antipsychotic is a type of medication used to treat a mental disorder such as schizophrenia. Examples include chlorpromazine, ziprasidone, and olanzapine. Depending on the drug, it may be available as a pill, drinkable liquid, or injection. There are often side effects associated with these drugs, such as muscle spasms, weight gain, and drowsiness. The amount of time a person must take this type of medication before seeing results can vary.

Antipsychotic medications are designed to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and schizophrenia-related illnesses. This type of medication is not meant to cure the mental disorder. Conditions such as schizophrenia have no known cure. Instead, people are prescribed antipsychotics to treat the symptoms of their conditions, such as hallucinations, delusions, and agitation. The goal of such treatment is generally to help individuals with psychotic disorders to be able to function more normally and effectively.

The use of antipsychotic medication is not new. Many of the drugs in this category have been used for decades. Drugs that were developed before the 1990s are commonly referred to as typical antipsychotics, and those that were made in the 1990s and later are referred to as atypical.

Using antipsychotic drugs for treatment presents a number of challenges. Prescribing an effective medication is one of the first priorities that a health care provider may have. A drug that works for one patient may not work for another, even when the patients have similar symptoms. It is common to find that patients must go through a trial-and-error process that involves testing several drugs before finding the one that best suits them.

In some cases, a user can experience positive effects from an antipsychotic drug in a matter of days. Other people may not experience results for more than a month. When people do begin to feel better, many begin to skip doses, or they completely stop taking their medication. As a result, they may experience recurring symptoms.

Antipsychotics are powerful medications that may affect a person's ability to operate a motor vehicle. These medications are also associated with a wide range of side effects, which will vary depending on the drug that is consumed. For example, one antipsychotic, clozapine, causes a loss of white blood cells, or agranulocytosis, in some users. Other potential side effects include dizziness, rashes, and menstrual problems. A person who is taking an antipsychotic may also experience muscle tremors and weight gain.

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Discussion Comments

By runner101 — On Nov 05, 2011

@Speechie - I also take Seroquel and am trying to get off of it, as it seems to make me sleepy for a very long time. And the only thing it seems to help me do is go to sleep. My doctor says if I feel like all Seroquel is doing is helping me sleep, I should stop taking that and take a milder form of sleep-aide if I still need help sleeping. I am going to try this and see how it works.

I am hoping that when I get off Seroquel to maybe lose a little of the weight I have gained, as I have gained twenty pounds since being on it. Twenty pounds is actually low compared to most people on anti-psychotics, who I have heard can gain up to one hundred pounds. I would definitely choose to be overweight over having mental issues, but if at all possible it would be good to eliminate both my mental issues and my extra weight.

I also do not want to develop the muscle spasm condition you can get from taking too much Seroquel for too long. Once you get these involuntary muscle spasms, they will not usually go away!

By Speechie — On Nov 05, 2011

I take a night-time antipsychotic to help me sleep at night. The drug is called Seroquel. When I take this, it takes a while to kick in, but once it does I am basically in a coma-like state from the time I fall asleep to at least the time I wake up, which is usually at least ten hours.

My doctor and I are weening myself off these anti-psychotics, as all they seem to do for me is literally knock me out.

When I first was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, it was a gift to be given an antipyschotic at night-time, just so I could shut my brain down and not have to worry and be anxious while I was asleep or attempting to sleep.

Now that my body has gotten used to the anti-depressant I take during the day, Prozac, I feel as though I do not need Seroquel anymore, as my brain is more balanced now and it seems like I can sleep better on my own now.

By burcinc — On Nov 04, 2011

As far as I know, antipsychotic drugs were found in the 50s. I wonder what kind of treatments were used before then? I'm sure doctors and patients were greatly relieved with the emergence of these drugs.

In nursing school, we spent a brief time going over antipsychotic medications. The list of drugs is not too long, although a lot new medications are being added now. We reviewed the traditional 'typical' antipsychotics and the new 'atypical' ones. I don't think that these terms will be used in the future when the new medications are more widely used.

I remember the most important part about this lesson was that patients who are taking these drugs need to get their white blood cells counted regularly. From once every week to once every month depending on how their white blood cells are responding to the medication. This has to be the one major downside of taking antipsychotics.

By SteamLouis — On Nov 04, 2011

@honeybees-- Antipsychotic meds causing weight gain is expected. Even medications for mild depression and anxiety cause weight gain. It's when these medication affect organ function that worry me. And that's a risk when trying new meds because it really takes ten or fifteen years to see the long-term affects of a medication.

That's why sticking to well known antipsychotic medications are better because studies showing their long-term affects have already been carried out. Doctors are already aware of the risks and benefits associated with them.

By candyquilt — On Nov 03, 2011

@honeybees- I can imagine how frustrating it must be for your sister. Unfortunately, all medications are like a double ended sword. While they help one thing, they damage something else. I'm glad your sister is back on the medication that has less side effects.

I don't have anyone who has schizophrenia in my immediate family, but a distant family member, my great-aunt's son has it. I saw him last year, he seemed to be doing well thanks to the antipsychotic medication he's on, although he does appear to be 'out of it' at times which I think is a side effect. I think these meds might have a tendency to put the patient in a sort of 'haze' or extreme calmness while trying to control agitation.

By honeybees — On Nov 03, 2011

I find myself very frustrated when I start talking about antipsychotic medicine. My sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a side effect from a brain injury she had when she was a teenager.

It has been a long road trying to find a medication that will help with her symptoms yet not have too many side effects.

The list of antipsychotic medications is growing as there are several new drugs out that have not been used in the past.

I think my sister feels like a guinea pig as she has been prescribed so many different ones trying to find the best one.

When she was taking one of the new antipsychotic meds, she gained 70 pounds and it severely affected her kidney function.

After all of that, they put her on an old medication that has been around for many years. She lost all the weight she gained, but they are still waiting to see if her kidney function improves.

While I am thankful there are medications that allow her to live a fairly normal life, it is so frustrating to see the side effects she has suffered from taking them.

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