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What is an Atypical Antipsychotic?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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An atypical antipsychotic is a prescription medication that may be used as part of ongoing treatment for one of several mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. There are many different types of atypical antipsychotic medications available, but they all have the same basic effects on the brain. The drugs are a fairly new development in medicine and generally offer better results than earlier, or typical, antipsychotic medications. It is important for patients to follow the instructions on their prescription bottles exactly and attend all scheduled appointments with their doctors to ensure the best possible results of treatment and avoid potentially serious health complications.

Typical antipsychotics such as chlorpromazine and haloperidol can be very effective in treating mental problems, but they carry major risks of harmful side effects. Some patients have experienced dangerous muscle spasms, tremors, and seizures during treatment. The risks of physical side effects are much lower with newer atypical antipsychotic drugs. The exact mechanism of action is not well understood, but the drugs appear to work by increasing the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Higher levels of these chemicals help stabilize cognitive functioning and reduce the chances of severe psychotic episodes.

There are dozens of different atypical antipsychotic medications available. Some of the most commonly used drugs include clozapine, olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine, and aripiprazole. Each drug has a slightly different chemical makeup, and some patients respond better to certain medications than to others.

A physician or psychiatrist can decide to prescribe an atypical antipsychotic after confidently diagnosing a mental disorder. Safe dosage amounts are determined based on a patient's age, specific condition, and previous reactions to other medications. Most adults and adolescents are instructed to take one or two oral doses a day at regular times to achieve the best results. Most people start to see improvements in their symptoms within the first six weeks of treatment.

While the risks of serious side effects are much lower when taking an atypical antipsychotic drug compared to typical medications, it is still possible to experience complications. An atypical antipsychotic can affect a person's metabolism and lead to significant, rapid weight gain. Some patients also suffer from drowsiness, dizzy spells, increases in heart rate, and blurry vision. Such side effects are generally mild and tend to wear off after the first few days or weeks of starting treatment. A doctor may decide to adjust the dosage amount or switch to a different drug at some point during treatment if the patient does not respond well.

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