Various medications can help manage bipolar disorder, such as antidepressants and lithium, which is a mood stabilizer. Working with a doctor, a person can often find effective treatment.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that involves extreme changes in mood, behavior, energy, and thought patterns. A person with bipolar disorder experiences significant highs and lows. The clinical terms for these states are mania and depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 2.8% of adults in the United States have bipolar disorder.

Doctors often find it challenging to treat because everyone responds to the medications differently.

Many people with bipolar disorder try several medications before they find one that works for them. Some people also find that managing their symptoms requires more than one type of medication.

Different types, or classes, of drugs can safely and effectively treat bipolar disorder.

Finding the right medication

Finding the right combination of medications to treat bipolar disorder can take some time. A doctor considers a person’s symptoms and tries to find the right medications to match them. It is best if a person is open with their doctor about any new or changing symptoms and side effects. The doctor can then adjust the treatment accordingly.

Was this helpful?
A woman with bipolar disorder talks to her doctor about medicationShare on Pinterest
wagnerokasaki/Getty Images

Lithium goes by the generic names lithium carbonate, which comes as capsules and tablets, and lithium citrate, which comes in liquid form. There are several brand names, such as Eskalith, Eskalith CR, and Lithobid.

Lithium works in the brain to help stabilize moods. Doctors may prescribe it to help treat bipolar disorder or acute mania.

The dosage is usually 600–1,800 milligrams (mg) of lithium carbonate daily.

Lithium is fast-acting and may treat acute manic episodes.

Doctors have prescribed lithium to treat bipolar disorder for decades, despite the range of possible side effects. These can include:

  • nausea
  • shaking
  • dry mouth
  • frequent urination
  • diarrhea
  • weight gain
  • increased thirst
  • loss of appetite
  • kidney damage
  • reduced thyroid activity
  • fatigue
  • emotional numbness, or a “dull” feeling

It is essential for people taking lithium to stay hydrated. This keeps lithium levels in the blood from becoming toxic. A doctor typically monitors these levels regularly.

Signs of lithium toxicity, or excess lithium in the blood, include:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • confusion
  • fatigue
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • less coordination
  • muscle weakness, twitching, and tremors
  • an irregular heart rhythm
  • seizures

If anyone has symptoms of lithium toxicity, it is best to call 911 or the local emergency number. Lithium overdoses can result in coma and death.

A doctor also monitors levels of creatinine in the blood to ensure that the kidneys are handling the drug well. Creatinine is a waste product that the kidneys create. When blood creatinine levels are high, it is often a sign that the kidneys are not working correctly.

Anticonvulsants treat conditions that cause seizures, but they can also help manage mania and bipolar disorder.

Doctors often refer to anticonvulsants that treat bipolar disorder as “mood stabilizers.”

They may prescribe the following anticonvulsants for bipolar disorder:

  • divalproex sodium (Depakote)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • valproic acid (Depakene)
  • carbamazepine (Equetro)
  • topiramate (Topamax)

Some common side effects of anticonvulsant medications include:

  • nausea
  • shaking
  • weight gain
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • blurred vision
  • dry mouth

Topiramate may have different or additional side effects, including:

  • weight loss
  • memory issues
  • emotional numbness or a “dull” feeling
  • kidney stones

Lamotrigine can also sometimes cause a rash that requires medical attention.

Doctors may not prescribe valproic acid during pregnancy, as it may cause some congenital anomalies.

Doctors typically prescribe antipsychotic medications to treat schizophrenia.

However, antipsychotics can also help manage bipolar disorder, especially when periods of psychosis occur during severe depression or mania.

A doctor may prescribe an antipsychotic drug “off-label” to help manage bipolar disorder. This means the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of this drug for this purpose.

However, a few antipsychotics do have FDA approval to treat bipolar disorder, including:

For acute bipolar mania

  • olanzapine (Zyprexa)
  • risperidone (Risperdal)
  • quetiapine fumarate (Seroquel)
  • asenapine (Saphris)
  • aripiprazole (Abilify)
  • ziprasidone (Geodon)
  • iloperidone (Fanapt)
  • olanzapine/fluoxetine (Symbyax)
  • paliperidone (Invega)

For bipolar maintenance

  • aripiprazole (Abilify)
  • olanzapine (Zyprexa)
  • risperidone (Risperdal Consta)

For bipolar depression

  • quetiapine (Seroquel XR)
  • lurasidone HCl (Latuda)
  • olanzapine/fluoxetine (Symbyax)
  • cariprazine (Vraylar)

Some possible side effects of antipsychotic medications include:

  • drowsiness and sedation
  • dry mouth
  • shaking
  • increased appetite
  • weight gain
  • constipation
  • low blood pressure
  • restlessness
  • increased saliva
  • reduced libido or sexual dysfunction

Asenapine can cause numbness and an unusual taste in the mouth. Ziprasidone may cause heart problems.

Antidepressants can help manage the symptoms of bipolar depression, though scientists are still researching their efficacy. They work by acting on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

A person who takes antidepressants for bipolar disorder also needs to take a mood stabilizer to help prevent the risk of mania.

One medication, called Symbyax, is a mix of both an antidepressant (fluoxetine) and an antipsychotic (olanzapine). This can help treat depression while also stabilizing mood.

There are several classes of antidepressants, each of which targets a different neurotransmitter or set of neurotransmitters. The FDA has not approved specific antidepressants to treat bipolar disorder, so any prescription may be off-label.

Some classes of antidepressants that may reduce symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

  • levomilnacipran (Fetzima)
  • duloxetine (Cymbalta, Yentreve)
  • venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • desvenlafaxine (Khedezla, Pristiq)
  • milnacipran (Savella)

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

  • citalopram (Celexa)
  • fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • paroxetine (Paxil)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)

Tricyclics and tetracyclics

  • clomipramine (Anafranil)
  • amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • desipramine (Norpramin)
  • imipramine (Tofranil)
  • nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • doxepin (Silenor, Zonalon, Prudoxin)
  • trimipramine (Surmontil)
  • protriptyline (Vivactil)
  • maprotiline (Ludiomil)
  • amoxapine (Asendin)

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

  • phenelzine (Nardil)
  • tranylcypromine (Parnate)
  • moclobemide (Amira, Aurorix, Clobemix)
  • isocarboxazid

Each group of antidepressants and each specific drug can have different side effects. Some of the most common side effects of antidepressants include:

  • sexual dysfunction
  • dizziness
  • insomnia
  • sleepiness
  • dry mouth
  • agitation, anxiety, and nervousness
  • weight gain
  • low blood pressure

A doctor may prescribe antianxiety medication, such as a benzodiazepine, for short-term use. These can also help with sleep. Doctors typically do not prescribe these drugs for long periods due to the risk of tolerance and dependence.

Examples include:

  • diazepam (Valium)
  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • clorazepate (Tranxene T-Tab)
  • lorazepam (Lorazepam Intensol, Ativan)
  • oxazepam (Alepam)

Doctors prescribe medications as the first line of treatment for bipolar disorder. Some people find that additional approaches, including some self-care strategies, help manage their condition along with medication.

Some additional ways to help manage bipolar disorder include:

Each medication can cause side effects. These vary from drug to drug and class to class.

For example, side effects of antipsychotics can include:

  • drowsiness
  • lack of emotion
  • restlessness
  • dry mouth
  • weight gain

Lithium, one of the most commonly prescribed mood stabilizers, can cause:

  • thirst
  • excessive urination
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • tremor
  • weight gain
  • cognitive issues
  • kidney and thyroid issues

Some side effects may resolve within a few days or weeks, while others may last longer.

A healthcare professional may be able to describe ways of reducing side effects, such as taking medications at different times of the day or with food.

A person should always consult a doctor about any severe, concerning, or persistent side effects. They may modify the dosage or recommend a different treatment. An individual can also inform the doctor if any treatment is still not reducing the symptoms.

Finding the right medication can be a slow process, but it is best to talk with a doctor before ending the treatment. A person should also tell a doctor if they have missed more than one or two doses.

Below are answers to common questions about medications for bipolar disorder.

What is the most common drug used to treat bipolar disorder?

Mood stabilizers may be the most common treatment approach, though doctors often prescribe a combination of medications.

More common mood stabilizers include lithium (Eskalith, Lithobid), carbamazepine (Equetro, Tegretol), divalproex sodium (Depakote), lamotrigine (Lamictal), and valproic acid (Depakene).

What is the newest drug for bipolar disorder?

In December 2021, the FDA approved lumateperone (Caplyta) to treat bipolar disorder in adults. This drug treats depressive episodes, either alone or alongside lithium or valproic acid.

What is the best treatment for bipolar disorder?

Doctors often recommend one or more medications and psychotherapy. The drug combination may involve a mood stabilizer and an antidepressant. A person should work with a doctor to identify the most effective approach to treatment.

Several types of medication can effectively treat bipolar disorder. However, each can cause side effects.

Many mild or moderate side effects may resolve within the first weeks or months. However, if side effects are concerning or bothersome, it is best for people to speak with the doctor.

If any side effect seems dangerous, a person should contact emergency services. Some medications, especially lithium-based drugs, can cause complications that require urgent care.

An individual may need to seek emergency care if any of the following arise:

  • severe or sudden changes of any kind
  • muscle weakness, a tremor, or a twitch
  • difficulty concentrating
  • confusion
  • a severe rash
  • jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes
  • an irregular heartbeat or other heart-related symptoms
  • a fever
  • thoughts of suicide
  • hallucinations, such as hearing voices that are not there

In many cases, finding the right treatment requires patience and a trial-and-error approach. Combining drug-based treatment with other methods, such as psychotherapy and stress-management techniques, can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.