Drugs to Treat Bipolar Disorder

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on July 29, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 29, 2014

Bipolar Medications

If you have bipolar disorder, you’ll need to be treated on an ongoing basis. In fact, you should be seeing a mental health professional regularly—a professional should always monitor your condition, even if you feel fine. Treatment usually includes a combination of medication and talk therapy.

Psychiatrists typically recommend medications as initial treatment to control symptoms as quickly as possible. Once symptoms are under control, maintenance treatment follows. Maintenance treatment is very important; without it, the risk of relapse is high. There is also a greater chance that minor mood swings can turn into full-blown mania or depression.

Several types of medications are used to treat bipolar disorder. These include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and drugs that relieve anxiety. Your doctor may prescribe one or a combination of medications for maximum effect.

Finding the right medication or combination of medications will take some trial and error. You may need to change medications due to side effects. It can take up to eight weeks to see the full effects of each medication. Usually, only one medication is changed at a time—this enables your doctor to better monitor and identify which one is not working.

Medications to treat bipolar disorder include:

Lithium

Lithium (such as Lithobid) is a mood-stabilizing drug that has been used since the 1970s. It helps control symptoms of acute mania and is effective at preventing the recurrence of periods of mania and depression.

Common side effects include weight gain and digestive issues. The drug can also affect your thyroid and kidneys. Periodic blood tests are needed to monitor thyroid and kidney health.

Lithium is a category D drug that should be avoided in pregnancy if at all possible. However, in some instances the benefits may outweigh potential risks.

Anticonvulsants

Anticonvulsants are mood stabilizers used to treat bipolar disorder. They have been used since the mid-1990s. In 2009, the drug asenapine was approved for treatment of bipolar disorder. It is also used to treat those with mixed episodes (manic and depressed at the same time). Anticonvulsant drugs include:

  • asenapine (Saphris)
  • divalproex sodium (Depakote)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • valproic acid (Depakene)

Common side effects of anticonvulsants include weight gain, drowsiness, and an inability to sit still. Anticonvulsants are also associated with increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior. Valproic acid is known to cause birth defects. Lamictal is known to cause a rash that can be dangerous. Alert your doctor to any new rash that develops while on Lamictal.

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotic drugs are another treatment option. Some commonly prescribed are:

  • olanzapine (Zyprexa)
  • risperidone (Risperdal)
  • quetiapine (Seroquel)

Common side effects include weight gain, drowsiness, dry mouth, decreased libido, and blurred vision. Antipsychotics may also affect memory and attention. They are also known to cause involuntary facial or body movements.

Antidepressants

These include serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclics. Antidepressants can sometimes trigger manic episodes. If they are prescribed it is often along with a mood stabilizer to control manic symptoms.

Here are some of the more commonly prescribed antidepressants:

SNRIs

  • desvenlafaxine (Pristiq)
  • duloxetine (Cymbalta, Yentreve)
  • venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • citalopram (Celexa)
  • escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • fluoxetine (Prozac, Prozac Weekly)
  • paroxetine (Paxil, Paxil CR, Pexeva)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)
  • amitripyline
  • desipramine  (Norpramin)
  • imipramine (Tofranil, Tofranil-PM)
  • nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)

SSRIs

  • citalopram (Celexa)
  • escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • fluoxetine (Prozac, Prozac Weekly)
  • paroxetine (Paxil, Paxil CR, Pexeva)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)

Tricyclics

  • amitripyline
  • desipramine  (Norpramin)
  • imipramine (Tofranil, Tofranil-PM)
  • nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)

MAOIs

In general, MAOIs are rarely prescribed unless a patient has a poor response to SNRIs or SSRIs. Common side effects include reduced sexual desire, sleep disturbance, increased appetite, dry mouth, gastrointestinal troubles, and menstrual problems.

When taking an MAOI, it is important to avoid other medications and foods like wine and cheese, which can cause a rare, dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome.

Benzodiazepines

These are a group of medications with anxiety-relieving properties. Benzodiazepines include:

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)

Side effects can include drowsiness, reduced muscle coordination, and problems with balance and memory. These medications should be used with caution due to the risk of dependence.

Symbyax

This medication combines fluoxetine and the antipsychotic olanzapine. Symbyax has properties of both an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer. Side effects can include increased appetite, sexual problems, drowsiness, fatigue, and dry mouth. If your doctor prescribes this medicine, ask if separate prescriptions for the two components are less expensive. There is nothing magic in using the combination pill. It is simply a new formulation of two existing drugs.

Medications and Pregnancy

Some medications, such as lithium and valproic acid, can increase your unborn baby’s risk for birth defects. Certain medications may also lower the effectiveness of birth control drugs. If you are using birth control to prevent pregnancy make sure to discuss this with your doctor.

In addition, if you are currently breast-feeding, talk to your doctor about your medication. Some may not be safe for your baby.

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