Lithium is a medication which has been used for over 50 years. It is sold under a variety of brand names, including Eskalith,® Carbolith,® Cibalith,® Lithane,® Lithobid,® Lithizine,® Duralith,® Lithonate,® and Lithotabs.® The most common formulation, lithium carbonate, was approved back in 1970 by the FDA.

What it’s used to treat

Lithium is one of the most frequently used medications for the treatment of bipolar disorder. In particular, it works to stabilize manic episodes. Not only does it alleviate their severity when they occur, it also helps decrease the risk of a recurrence of mania. Lithium has also proved to be effective in the treatment of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. Lithium has also been shown to help with suicidal ideation.

With regards to schizophrenia, lithium can be effective in treating the mood symptoms which are experienced by individuals with schizoaffective disorder. Schizoaffective disorder is very similar to schizophrenia, but with the addition of either manic or depressive episodes.

How it works

Lithium works in the body by impacting the central nervous system. It plays a role in how sodium flows throughout the muscle and nerve cells. In doing so, it reduces manic symptoms.

How it’s administered

Lithium comes in several forms, including tablets and extended-release tablets, as well as syrup and capsules.

Potential Side Effects

There are many potential side effects associated with lithium. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Excess thirst and need to urinate
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight gain
  • Shaky hands
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulties concentration
  • Drowsiness
  • Acne
  • Thinning hair
  • Muscle weakness
  • Decreased thyroid function

Some very serious side effects which may also be caused by lithium include serious allergic reactions, fever, decreased heart rate, seizures, hallucinations, and lithium toxicity. Lithium toxicity can lead to brain damage, coma, and death if not treated immediately. Signs of lithium toxicity include extreme nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, twitching muscles, slurred speech, blurry vision, irregular pulse, significant dizziness, swollen lower legs or feet, and uncontrollable eye movements.


Lithium, like all medications, has many precautions which should be considered before taking it. Be sure to let your doctor know if you have any history of heart or kidney disease, thyroid problems, psoriasis, cardiovascular problems, problems with dehydration or low sodium levels, drug allergies, or any kind of serious medical condition. If you are pregnant or nursing, or planning to become pregnant, tell your doctor before starting treatment with lithium.

Lithium can react badly with certain medications, particularly haldol, SSRI antidepressants, ibuprofen and naproxen, and any type of diuretic.

written by Dr. Cheryl Lane, PsyD

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