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What Is a Typical Antipsychotic?

Allison Boelcke
By Allison Boelcke
Updated May 17, 2024
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A typical antipsychotic is a prescription medication that is used primarily for the treatment of psychosis, a term that refers to any disorders that cause a detachment from reality. The most common condition that is treated with this type of medication is schizophrenia, a disorder that causes breaks from reality that are thought to be the result of abnormalities in the brain. Typical antipsychotic medications were developed in the 1950s, and were the only antipsychotic medications until the 1990s when a different form of the medication known as atypical antipsychotic, was developed. The main difference between the two is that many people may experience milder side effects while on atypical antipsychotic medications; however, the effectiveness and side effects experienced will usually vary widely depending on each specific person.

The most common symptoms that a typical antipsychotic is able to treat tend to be hallucinations and delusions. Although the two symptoms are often confused with one another, they have distinctive differences. Hallucinations are sensory perceptions that are not actually true and may include hearing voices or seeing images that do not truly exist. Delusions are mistaken thoughts or beliefs that are implausible or bizarre, and tend to be not as easily distinguishable as hallucinations. People experiencing delusions may believe others are stealing or recording their thoughts or tracking their movements, as well as other types of paranoia that are not based in reality.

It is not conclusively known how taking a typical antipsychotic medication actually works at temporarily treating the symptoms of psychosis. Some tend to believe that the medication reduces symptoms by altering the levels of chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages from the brain throughout the rest of the body and control movement, as well as mental functions such as mood and perception. Faulty signals from neurotransmitters are thought to be a possible reason for the symptoms of psychosis.

Although taking a typical antipsychotic may treat the symptoms of psychosis and help a person function more easily in everyday life, this type of medication can cause severe side effects in some individuals. A side effect that tends to occur after long term use of typical antipsychotic medications, but not the atypical ones, is tardive dyskinesia (TD). TD is a condition in which a person cannot fully control his or her muscle movements, especially in the mouth, and may cause involuntary lip or tongue movements. Other common side effects of these medications include tremors, abnormal heartbeat, and drowsiness. Even if the side effects become severe, it is not recommended that a person stop taking antipsychotic medications without the supervision of a doctor because the symptoms of psychosis can rapidly reoccur and make a person dangerous to him or herself or others.

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