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Medications for Treating Bipolar Disorder

Medications for Treating Bipolar Disorder

What can these medications do?
What side effects may occur?
What else should I know about mood stabilizers?

People with bipolar disorder (once called "manic depression") have extreme mood swings, from very high moods (the manic part) to very low moods (the depression part), and back again. During the manic phase, a person may be very outgoing and talkative and full of grand-sounding schemes, which may in reality be very risky ideas. The manic phase can last for a short time, or for as long as years. After the manic phase, the person becomes severely depressed. Lithium is the best-known medication for treating bipolar disorder. Lithium can help control the manic phase as well as help even out future mood swings. Now many psychiatrists use Depakote as a mood stabilizer instead of lithium. back to top

What can these medications do?
Lithium usually starts to work in 5 to 14 days. During those first few days before the lithium kicks in, the person may need to also take an antipsychotic medication, a medicine for treating severe difficulties in thinking. Later, during the depression phase, the person may also need to take an antidepressant medication, a medicine for treating depression. If the person takes too little lithium, the medication won't work well. If the person takes too much, it can cause a number of side effects. The key to taking just the right amount is getting regular blood tests from a health professional to check how much lithium is in the body. back to top

What side effects may occur?
At first, lithium may cause side effects, such as sleepiness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, tiredness, shaky hands, frequent urination, or increased thirst. These usually go away quickly, although the shaky hands may never go away. A person taking lithium may also gain weight. A balanced diet and regular exercise help with the weight gain. Anything that lowers the level of sodium (salt) in the body may cause an unhealthy level of lithium. Sweating heavily during exercise, switching to a low-salt diet, or fever, vomiting, and diarrhea due to being sick can raise your lithium level. Your health care provider needs to know about anything that might affect your body's lithium level, and the dose may need to be changed.

Some health care providers prescribe anticonvulsants instead of lithium or along with it. These medications are usually used to treat epilepsy, a brain disorder that causes seizures, but they can help with extreme mood swings as well. Possible side effects of these medications include sleepiness, dizziness, vision problems, headache, and upset stomach. People who take these drugs must be followed closely by a health care provider and have regular blood tests because sometimes they cause liver problems, blood changes, and skin rashes. back to top

What else should I know about mood stabilizers?
If you are taking a medication, it is important to ask your health care provider about the possible side effects. Make sure you or a parent knows what to do if side effects occur. Don't stop taking your medication or start taking more or less of it without talking with your health care provider first.

You can't just buy mood-stabilizing medications at the drugstore. A health professional must prescribe all mood-stabilizing medications. If you feel like your moods are out of control, talk with your parents, another trusted adult, or your health care professional. Don't take someone else's mood-stabilizing medicine, such as a friend's or a parent's. A medication that works for someone else may not work for you, and could even hurt you. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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