Explains what antipsychotics are used for, how the medication works, possible side effects and information about withdrawal.

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What are antipsychotics?

Antipsychotics are psychiatric drugs which are available on prescription, and are licensed to treat types of mental health problems whose symptoms include psychotic experiences. These include:

Some antipsychotics may also be used to treat:

  • severe anxiety (but only in very low doses)
  • physical problems, such as persistent hiccups, problems with balance and nausea (feeling sick)
  • agitation and psychotic experiences in dementia (although they're not usually recommended in this case)

Antipsychotics can be prescribed to be taken in various different ways. Most commonly this will be orally in tablet or liquid form, but some of them can also be prescribed as depot injections.

Other terms for antipsychotics

Antipsychotic drugs can also be called neuroleptics. Some people prefer this term because it means 'seizing hold of the nerves', which describes their action more accurately. You might also hear antipsychotics referred to as major tranquillisers, which is an old-fashioned term for the same drugs.

On this page you will find information on:

What's it like taking them?

You can watch Steve, Joe, Laura and Ziaul talk about their experiences of taking antipsychotics in this video:

What should I know before taking antipsychotics?

Informed consent

The law says that you have the right to make an informed decision about which treatment(s) to have. To consent properly, you need to have enough information to understand what the treatment is, what its benefits should be, possible harms it might cause, its chance of success, and available alternative treatments.

Even after you have given your consent you can change your mind at any time. Consent is fundamental to treatment, and treatment given without consent can amount to assault and negligence.

However, if you are in hospital as an involuntary patient under the Mental Health Act (sectioned), you can be treated without your consent. For more information on this, see Consent to medical treatment.

If you have taken medication before, you may know which drugs work best for you. You might want to write a statement saying which drugs have and haven’t helped you in the past, to help make the right choice in the future; especially if you are not able to make your wishes known clearly at the time.

You can do this by:

If you are worried about your diagnosis and treatment, and unsure about the advice you have been given, you could ask either your GP or psychiatrist to refer you for a second opinion.

Patient information leaflets

If you are prescribed medication as an outpatient, it should come with a patient information leaflet (PIL – usually folded up small to fit in the packet); as an inpatient, you may have to ask for it specifically. If you do not receive the PIL, you should ask for it from the person who makes up your prescription.

  • The PIL contains information such as:
  • the trade and generic names of the drug
  • the dosage and form it takes, e.g. tablets or liquid
  • who should take it
  • what conditions the drug is licensed to treat
  • cautions about any conditions that mean you should take a reduced dose or not take it at all
  • how and when to take it
  • possible side effects
  • the expiry date
  • how to store it safely

It should also contain a full list of all the ingredients, including the extra contents that hold it together as a tablet or capsule, such as maize starch, gelatin, cellulose, and colourings. This information is important because some people may be allergic to one or other of the ingredients, such as lactose or gluten or a colouring. Gelatin is unacceptable to some people because it is an animal product.

Getting more information from your doctor or pharmacist

The PIL contains only the most important information you need to know about the medicine and if you need to know more, you should ask your doctor or your pharmacist.

Many people would like to have the information about their medicine before they start taking it. You might like to make a list of questions to ask your doctor, when your prescription is written, such as will the medication make you sleepy, should you take it with meals, or are you likely to have problems coming off it.

You can also talk to your pharmacist, either at your local hospital or your chemist. Pharmacists are drug specialists, and may be more knowledgeable about your drugs than the doctor who prescribes them. They may be more aware of possible side effects, and also possible interactions with other drugs (this is when a drug changes the effect of other drugs you are taking). Many high-street chemists have space set aside where you can talk privately.

There is more information on medicines and their use available from the eMC (Electronic Medicines Compendium) website

Medicines Use Reviews

If you regularly take more than one prescription medicine, or take medicines for a long-term illness, you can go to your local pharmacist for a Medicines Use Review, in which you can talk about your medicines, what they’re all for, and any problems you may have with them. A guide to this scheme is available from the Department of Health

Drug names

Drugs can have two types of names: their generic name and the trade names given by the drug companies (starting with a capital letter). If a drug is made by more than one company, it can have several trade names, but it always has the same generic name. In our Antipsychotics A-Z, drugs are listed using their generic name.

How do they work?

Antipsychotic drugs don't cure psychosis but they are often effective in reducing and controlling many symptoms, including:

  • delusions and hallucinations, such as paranoia and hearing voices
  • anxiety and serious agitation, for example from feeling threatened
  • incoherent speech and muddled thinking
  • confusion
  • violent or disruptive behaviour
  • mania

Rather than getting rid of these symptoms completely, the drugs may just stop you feeling so bothered by them – so you feel more stable and can get on with leading your life the way you want to.

They make me feel calm, help me sleep, stop racing thoughts and help blunt hallucinations. Meds don't make life perfect – they just help me cope with the imperfections and struggles I face.

What's the science behind antipsychotics?

There are several possible explanations why antipsychotic drugs can be effective in controlling and reducing psychotic symptoms:

  • Blocking the action of dopamine. Researchers believe that some psychotic experiences are caused by your brain producing too much of a chemical called dopamine (dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means that it passes messages around your brain). Most antipsychotic drugs are known to block some of the dopamine receptors in the brain – this reduces the flow of messages, which may be too frequent in psychotic states.
  • Affecting other brain chemicals. Most antipsychotics are known to affect other brain chemicals too, such as the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline, which are both thought to be involved in regulating mood.
  • Parkinsonism. Some academics have suggested that antipsychotics may actually work by causing Parkinsonism (a movement disorder) – not just the physical symptoms, which are well known neuromuscular side effects of these drugs, but also the psychological symptoms, such as not feeling emotions and losing interest in activities.

What different types of antipsychotics are there?

Antipsychotic drugs tend to fall into one of two categories: first generation (older) antipsychotics and second generation (newer) antipsychotics. Both types can potentially work well, but they differ in the kind of side effects they can cause and how severe these may be.

First generation (older) antipsychotics

Key facts:

  • mostly developed and first licensed in the 1950s
  • sometimes referred to as 'typicals'
  • these divide into various chemical groups which all act in a very similar way and can cause very similar side effects, including severe neuromuscular side effects
  • however, they're not all the same – for example, some may cause more severe movement disorders than others, or be more likely to make you more drowsy

Second generation (newer) antipsychotics

Key facts:

  • mostly developed and first licensed in the 1990s
  • sometimes referred to as 'atypicals'
  • in general these cause less severe neuromuscular side effects than first generation antipsychotics
  • some also cause fewer sexual side effects compared to first generation antipsychotics
  • however, second generation antipsychotics are more likely to cause serious metabolic side effects, including rapid weight gain

For a full list of all antipsychotic drugs compared by type, form and half-life, see our page on comparing antipsychotics. For more details about specific antipsychotics and their side effects, you can also look up each individual drug in our A–Z of antipsychotics.

I still take antipsychotic medication today and I don't have a problem with it. I feel so much better than when I was first prescribed an antipsychotic. I know that they work for me and help.

This information was published in 2016. We will revise it in 2018.

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