What are anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs? How do they work (mechanism of action)?

Anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs include a broad class of medications that are used to treat various medical conditions that involve the contraction and relaxation of muscles. Examples of these conditions include overactive bladder, muscle spasms, breathing problems, diarrhea, gastrointestinal cramps, movement disorders, and others. Anticholinergics work by blocking the action of acetylcholine in the brain and at nerves. Neurotransmitters are chemicals made and released by nerves that travel to nearby nerves or, in the case of acetylcholine, nearby muscles and glands where they attach to receptors on the surface of the nerve, muscle, or glandular cells. The attachment of the neurotransmitter can stimulate or inhibit the activity of the receptor-containing cells. Anticholinergic drugs affect the function of many organs by preventing acetylcholine from binding to its receptors.

Anticholinergic drugs decrease the activity of muscles in the gut and reduce the production of sweat, saliva, digestive juices, urine, and tears. Additionally, anticholinergic drugs help to balance the production of dopamine, another neurotransmitter that plays an important role in maintaining mood, movement, memory, attention, problem-solving, motivation, and pleasure.

In addition to drugs that are primarily anticholinergic, there are drugs used for purposes other than nerve, muscle, or glandular problems which have some anticholinergic effects that are considered side effects, for example, antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs

What are anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs used for?

  1. Overactive bladder
  2. Movement problems in Parkinson's disease
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Motion sickness
  5. Nausea and/or vomiting
  6. Muscle spasms
  7. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  8. Asthma

What are examples of prescription anticholinergic and antispasmodic agents available in the US?

A variety of medications with anticholinergic properties are available for the treatment of various medical conditions.


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Drugs that have anticholinergic activity

Overactive bladder (OAB) medications

Antispasmodic medications


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Antidepressant medications

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Muscle relaxants

Motion sickness medications

Gastrointestinal medications

Respiratory medications

  • ipratropium (Atrovent, Combivent, Duoneb)
  • tiotropium (Spiriva)
  • aclidinium (Tudorza Pressair)
  • umeclidinium and vilanterol (Anoro Ellipta)

What are the side effects of anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs?

When possible, the use of anticholinergics should be avoided in the elderly because anticholinergic side effects are particularly common and problematic in older individuals.

Who should not use anticholinergic and antispasmodic medications?

Patients with the following medical conditions should not use medications with anticholinergic properties since the use of anticholinergic medications can worsen their conditions:

What drugs interact with anticholinergic and antispasmodic drugs?

The use of multiple drugs with anticholinergic properties may be problematic because of their cumulative anticholinergic side effects. Examples of medications with anticholinergic properties that should not be combined include:

Patients are advised to consult with their doctor or pharmacist for more information regarding potential drug interactions.

What about taking anticholinergics and antispasmodic during pregnancy or while breastfeeding?


Most of the available anticholinergic medications have not been adequately studied in pregnant women. Patients who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant should consult with their doctor before starting a regimen that contains anticholinergic medications.


Many drugs can enter human milk and cause unwanted side effects in the nursing baby. Therefore, all medications should be used cautiously in nursing mothers. The prescribing information for each drug should be consulted for recommendations about use while breastfeeding.


Anticholinergic or antispasmodic drugs include prescription medications used to treat a variety of medical conditions. Review anticholinergic drug side effects, drug interactions, storage, dosing, and pregnancy and safety information prior to taking this medication.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/7/2022
Clinical Pharmacology [database online]. Tampa, FL: Gold Standard, Inc.; 2009.

Drugs with Anticholinergic Activity. Prescriber's Letter 2011; 18 (12):271233.