Lithium

Lithium

If you remember high school chemistry, then lithium might sound familiar: this medication is made from the naturally occurring lithium element, in combination with carbon and oxygen. The way in which lithium, oxygen and carbon combine is called Lithium carbonate and is classified as a “salt” – not like table salt, which is made from sodium. Lithium carbonate is sold as Eskalith and Lithobid, which are the brand names for this compound.

What is Lithium Carbonate Prescribed for?

Lithium carbonate is a mood stabilizer. It is not commonly used or prescribed for any conditions other than mood disorders and for many years was the medication of choice for treating bipolar disorder. In fact, many years ago, a trial of Lithium carbonate was one factor in diagnosing bipolar disorder: if the patient improved when taking this medication, this confirmed the diagnosis. Lithium carbonate has also been shown to be helpful with certain types of cluster headaches. Lithium has been shown to be effective at treating and preventing manic episodes. In addition, there are some studies that indicate it is helpful in preventing the depression associated with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder as well.

What Does it Do?

Lithium carbonate acts upon a number of different neurotransmitters in the brain, including norepinephrine and serotonin. Researchers don’t know exactly how this works, but there is agreement in the treatment community that it does work to stabilize mood and decrease manic symptoms or prevent manic episodes. Similar to valproic acid (Depakote), it seems to work better at controlling and preventing the manic episodes than depressive ones.

What are the Most Common Side Effects?

  • Changes to the texture of your hair (thinning or drying, occasional hair loss)
  • Stomach upset (possible nausea and/or appetite loss)
  • Feeling thirsty
  • Shaking or trembling, especially of the hands
  • Acne or other rashes
  • Vision changes
  • Dry mouth, constipation, or other indicators of overall dryness

The thirst and dryness are real concerns for some people, and making sure you drink the right amount of fluids every day will be important. Drinking enough, but not too much, will help reduce any discomfort. Be sure to discuss this with your doctor, and get advice about how much water or other fluids you should be drinking.

As with any medication, you may have to weigh a medication’s effectiveness and the fact that it will aid in the prevention of worse symptoms against the discomfort of side effects when trying to decide whether or not to take it. Discuss your concerns and your experiences with your doctor frankly and ask about alternatives if you feel that this or any medication is just too unpleasant to use.

Special Concerns

Regular blood tests are necessary when taking Lithium carbonate to make sure than your body is receiving and processing the right amount of medication in order for you to feel your best. In addition, your doctor will order tests to check your kidney function, as Lithium carbonate can cause problems for your kidneys, especially if you have been taking it for a long time.

If you have diabetes, discuss this with your doctor before taking Lithium carbonate. For some people with diabetes, Lithium may be dangerous and a different medication should be considered.

Lithium, like Depakote, will adversely affect a developing fetus and is not safe to take during pregnancy or while nursing.

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