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Antipsychotic medications are prescribed to treat schizophrenia and other mental health issues involving delusions or psychosis. Psychosis is a mental state characterized by severe agitation, hallucinations, and a break with reality. People experiencing psychosis are sometimes but not always a danger to themselves and others. Antipsychotic medications have both a short-term sedative effect and long-term effect of reducing the chances of psychotic episodes. These medications work by altering the balance of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Some mental health problems are associated with an imbalance of these important chemicals.
Antipsychotic medications fall into two categories: typical and atypical. The typical, or conventional, antipsychotics were first developed in the 1950s. Haldol (haloperidol) and Thorazine (chlorpromazine) are the most well known typical antipsychotics. They continue to be useful in the treatment of severe psychosis and behavioral problems when newer medications are ineffective. However, these medications do have a high risk of side effects, some of which are quite severe. In response to the serious side effects of the typical antipsychotics, drug manufacturers developed the so-called atypical antipsychotics. These new medications were approved for use in the 1990s. Risperdal (risperidone), Zyprexa (olanzapine), and Abilify (aripiprazole) are among the most commonly prescribed atypical antipsychotics.
Most people taking antipsychotic medications will experience side effects, but these often diminish or go away after a few days or weeks. These side effects may include dizziness, drowsiness, blurry vision, and rapid heartbeat. Until a person knows how they will react to a new antipsychotic medication, it is best to avoid operating a motor vehicle. With the atypical antipsychotics, metabolic side effects are the biggest worry. These effects range from major weight gain to changes in blood chemistry. Metabolic changes raise a person's risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Regular exercise, a proper diet, and blood testing are important when a person takes an atypical antipsychotic medication for long periods. Physical side effects like tremors and muscle spasms are also possible with the typical antipsychotic medications. Even if side effects become a burden, it is important that people share their concerns with their doctor rather than suddenly discontinue an antipsychotic medication.
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.) What medications are used to treat schizophrenia? Retrieved April 25, 2012, from
Last Update: 04-22-2013
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