- What is lithium, and how does it work (mechanism of action)?
- What are the uses for lithium?
- What are the side effects of lithium?
- What is the dosage for lithium?
- Which drugs or supplements interact with lithium?
- Is lithium safe to take if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
- What else should I know about lithium?
What is lithium, and how does it work (mechanism of action)?
Lithium is used for the treatment of manic/depressive (bipolar) and depressive disorders. Lithium is a positively charged element or particle that is similar to sodium and potassium. It interferes at several places inside cells and on the cell surface with other positively charged atoms such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium which are important in many cellular functions.
Lithium interferes with the production and uptake of chemical messengers by which nerves communicate with each other (neurotransmitters). Lithium also affects the concentrations of tryptophan and serotonin in the brain. In addition, lithium increases the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow. Lithium's effects usually begin within 1 week of starting treatment, and the full effect is seen by 2 to 3 weeks.
Lithium has been used since the 1950's. The FDA approved lithium carbonate, the most common lithium preparation in 1970.
What brand names are available for lithium?
Is lithium available as a generic drug?
Do I need a prescription for lithium?
What are the side effects of lithium?
Lithium toxicity is closely related to serum lithium concentrations, and can occur at doses close to therapeutic concentrations. Facilities for prompt and accurate serum lithium determinations should be available before initiating therapy
Common side effects
The most common side effects that can occur in persons taking lithium are:
- Fine hand tremor
- Dry mouth
- Altered taste perception
- Decreased memory
- Muscle weakness
- Weight gain
- Increased thirst
- Increased frequency of urination
- Mild nausea or vomiting
- Decreased libido
- Kidney abnormalities
Many of the gastrointestinal side effects (nausea, taste alterations, diarrhea) often disappear with continued therapy. Additionally, they may be less common if lithium is taken in divided doses with meals. If diarrhea or excessive urination lead to dehydration, lithium toxicity is possible. Lithium also can cause changes in the electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG), low blood pressure, and decreased heart rate.
What is the dosage for lithium?
- Doses vary widely and are adjusted based on measurements of the levels of lithium in the blood. Recommended blood levels are 0.6-1.2 mEq/L.
- Early in therapy, dose adjustments are made as often as every 5 to 7 days to establish the correct dose.
- Most patients require 900-2400 mg daily in 2-4 divided doses depending on the formulation being used.
- Patients with kidney disease excrete less lithium from the body and, therefore, require lower doses.
Which drugs or supplements interact with lithium?
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), (for example, ibuprofen [Motrin, Advil], naproxen [Naprosyn, Aleve], indomethacin [Indocin], nabumetone [Relafen], diclofenac [Voltaren, Cataflam, Arthrotec], ketorolac [Toradol]), reduce the kidney's ability to eliminate lithium and lead to elevated levels of lithium in the blood andside effects from lithium. Blood concentrations of lithium may need to be measured for 4 to 7 days after an NSAID is either added or stopped during lithium therapy. Aspirin and sulindac (Clinoril) do not appear to affect lithium concentrations in the blood.
- Diuretics (water pills) should be used cautiously in patients receiving lithium. Diuretics that act at the distal renal tubule, (for example, hydrochlorothiazide [Hydrodiuril], spironolactone [Aldactone], triamterene [Dyrenium; Dyazide, Maxzide]), can increase blood concentrations of lithium. Diuretics that act at the proximal tubule, (for example, acetazolamide [Diamox]), are more likely to reduce blood concentrations of lithium. Diuretics such as furosemide (Lasix) and bumetanide (Bumex) may have no affect on lithium concentrations in blood.
- ACE inhibitors, (for example, enalapril [Vasotec], lisinopril [Zestril, Prinivil], benazepril [Lotensin], quinapril [Accupril], moexipril [Univasc], captopril [Capoten], ramipril [Altace]), may increase the risk of developing lithium toxicity by increasing the amount of lithium that is reabsorbed into the body in the tubules of the kidney and thereby reducing the excretion of lithium.
- When carbamazepine (Tegretol) and lithium are used together, some patients may experience side effects, including dizziness, lethargy, and tremor. Central nervous system side effects also may occur when lithium is used with antidepressants, (for example, fluoxetine [Prozac] sertraline [Zoloft], and paroxetine [Paxil], fluvoxamine [Luvox], amitriptyline [Elavil], imipramine [Tofranil], desipramine [Norpramin]). Combining lithium with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) class of antidepressants (for example, isocarboxazid [Marplan], phenelzine [Nardil], tranylcypromine [Parnate], selegiline [Eldepryl], and procarbazine [Matulane]) or other drugs that inhibit monoamine oxidase (for example, linezolid [Zyvox]) may lead to serious reactions.
- Medications which cause the urine to become alkaline (the opposite of acidic) can increase the amount of lithium that is lost into the urine. This results in lower blood concentrations of lithium and reduces the effects of lithium. Such drugs include potassium acetate, potassium citrate (Urocit-K), sodium bicarbonate, and sodium citrate (Bicitra, Cytra-2, Liqui-Citra, Oracit, Shohl's).
- Caffeine appears to reduce serum lithium concentrations, and side effects of lithium have increased in frequency when caffeine is consumed.
- Both diltiazem (Cardizem-CD, Tiazac, Dilacor-XR) and verapamil (Calan-SR, Isoptin-SR, Verelan, Covera-HS) have been reported to have variable effects on lithium levels in blood. In some patients there may be decreased lithium blood levels and in others lithium toxicity.
- Methyldopa (Aldomet) may increase the likelihood of lithium toxicity.
- Various reactions have resulted when lithium is administered with phenothiazines, (for example, chlorpromazine [Thorazine], thioridazine [Mellaril], trifluoperazine [Stelazine] or with haloperidol [Haldol]). Such reactions have included delirium, seizures, encephalopathy, high fever or certain neurologic reactions that affect movement of muscles, called extrapyramidal symptoms.
- Lithium can cause goiter or hypothyroidism. The use of lithium with potassium iodide can increase the likelihood of this adverse reaction.
- The use of the beta blocker, propranolol (Inderal), with lithium can lead to a slow heart rate and dizziness. Other beta blockers, (for example, metoprolol [Lopressor], atenolol [Tenormin]) also may interact with lithium and be associated with a slow heart rate.
Latest Depression News
Daily Health News
Is lithium safe to take if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
- Lithium crosses the placenta and has been associated with toxicity in the fetus. Children born to women taking lithium during pregnancy have an increased risk of goiter and cardiac anomalies. If possible, lithium should be withheld during the first trimester. Women of childbearing age who may require lithium should be counseled about becoming pregnant.
- Lithium is secreted into breast milk. Symptoms of lithium toxicity, including changes in the electrocardiogram, have been seen in some breastfed infants, whose mothers were taking lithium. If possible, women taking lithium should not breastfeed their infants.
What else should I know about lithium?
What preparations of lithium are available?
- Tablets: 300 mg.
- Tablets (extended release): 300 and 450 mg.
- Capsules: 150, 300 and 600 mg.
- Syrup: 300 mg/5 ml
How should I keep lithium stored?
All formulations should be kept at room temperature, 15 C to 30 C (59 F to 86 F).
Lithium (Lithobid) is used for the treatment of manic/depressive (bipolar) and depressive disorders. Lithium interferes with the synthesis and reuptake of chemical messengers by which nerves communicate with each other (neurotransmitters). It also affects the concentrations of tryptophan and serotonin in the brain, as well as increases the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Multimedia: Slideshows, Images & Quizzes
Surprising Reasons for Weight Gain
There are many reasons for sudden weight gain when there are no changes in diet or exercise. Sudden weight gain could be caused...
Bipolar Disorder: Symptoms, Testing for Bipolar Depression
Bipolar disorder (once called manic depression) causes extreme mood shifts and can be disorienting. Our experts define bipolar...
Moods Quiz: Test Your Emotional IQ
Take the moods quiz to learn about mood disorders and how your food and environment play major roles in how you feel.
Bipolar Disorder (Mania) Quiz: Test Your Emotional Wellness IQ
Who is at risk for developing bipolar disorder? Are you? Take this Bipolar Disorder Quiz to learn more about bipolar disorder, if...
Depression Quiz: Signs & Symptoms
Many people do not recognize the symptoms and warning signs of depression and depressive disorders in children and adults. With...
Postpartum Depression: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment
Postpartum depression is a treatable medical illness which affects women after giving birth. Learn about the symptoms, diagnosis...
Depression Myths: Overwork, Recklessness and More in Pictures
Folk remedies and half-truths still prevent many from getting treatment for depression. WebMD's pictures show unusual symptoms in...
Teen Drug Abuse: Warning Signs, Statistics, and Facts
Teen drug abuse is a growing concern today. Learn statistics, facts, warning signs, and effects related to teen substance abuse...
Visual Guide to Binge Eating Disorder
Learn about signs, symptoms, treatment, and recovery for this eating disorder. Get to know how binge eating affects emotional and...
Related Disease Conditions
Headaches can be divided into two categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches. Migraine headaches, tension headaches, and cluster headaches are considered primary headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by disease. Headache symptoms vary with the headache type. Over-the-counter pain relievers provide short-term relief for most headaches.
Acne is a localized skin inflammation as a result of overactivity of oil glands at the base of hair follicles. This inflammation, depending on its location, can take the form of a superficial pustule (contains pus), a pimple, a deeper cyst, congested pores, whiteheads, or blackheads. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the acne.
Depression in teenagers may be caused by many factors. Symptoms of teen depression include apathy, irresponsible behavior, sadness, sudden drop in grades, withdrawal from friends, and alcohol and drug use. Treatment of depression in adolescents may involve psychotherapy and medications.
Huntington's disease is the result of degeneration of neurons in areas of the brain. Huntington's disease is an inherited disorder. Early symptoms include mood swings, apathy, depression, and anger uncharacteristic of the individual. Judgement, memory, and other cognitive functions may become impaired. Presymptomatic testing is available for individuals who have a family history of Huntington's disease. Treatment includes medication and therapy for symptoms.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition, can develop after any catastrophic life event. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, sweating, rapid heart rate, detachment, amnesia, sleep problems, irritability, and exaggerated startle response. Treatment may involve psychotherapy, group support, and medication.
Alcoholism is a disease that includes alcohol craving and continued drinking despite repeated alcohol-related problems, such as losing a job or getting into trouble with the law. It can cause myriad health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, birth defects, heart disease, stroke, psychological problems, and dementia. Counseling and a few medications can be effective for alcoholism treatment.
Cluster headaches are a type of headache that recurs over a period. Episodes can last one to three times a day during this time, which may last from 2 weeks to 3 months. The three main types of treatments for cluster headaches are, 1) Abortive medications that work to stop the process in the brain that causes migraines and stops the symptoms too. 2) Preventive prescription medications, or 3) surgery which involves blocking the trigeminal nerve.
Depression is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts and affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks about things. The principal types of depression are major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disease (also called manic-depressive disease).
Fragile X Syndrome
Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of mental retardation. It's caused by a mutation on the X chromosome. People with Fragile X syndrome suffer from physical, social, emotional, speech, language, sensory, intelligence, and learning impairments. There is no definitive treatment for Fragile X, though there are ways to minimize the symptoms.
Depression in Children
Childhood depression can interfere with social activities, interests, schoolwork and family life. Symptoms and signs include anger, social withdrawal, vocal outbursts, fatigue, physical complaints, and thoughts of suicide. Treatment may involve psychotherapy and medication.
Diabetes insipidus is a condition in which the patient has frequent urination. Symptoms of diabetes insipidus include irritable, listless, fever, vomiting, or diarrhea due to the loss of large volumes of urine. There are three types of diabetes insipidus, central, nephrogenic, dipsogenic, and gestational. Treatment depends upon the type of diabetes insipidus.
Suicide is the process of intentionally ending one's own life. Approximately 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year, and 10 million to 20 million attempt suicide annually.
Bipolar disorder (or manic depression) is a mental illness characterized by depression, mania, and severe mood swings. Treatment may incorporate mood-stabilizer medications, antidepressants, and psychotherapy.
Bipolar Disorder vs. Schizophrenia
Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are mental illnesses that share some risk factors and treatments. Symptoms of bipolar disorder include mood changes and manic and depressive episodes. Symptoms of schizophrenia include unusual behavior, delusions, and hallucinations.
Schizoaffective disorder is a mental illness that features schizophrenia and a mood disorder, either major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms include agitation, suicidal thoughts, little need for sleep, delusions, hallucinations, and poor motivation. Treatment may involve psychotherapy, medication, skills training, or hospitalization.
Compulsive gambling is a disorder that affects millions in the U.S. Symptoms and signs include a preoccupation with gambling, lying to family or loved ones to hide gambling, committing crimes to finance gambling, and risking importance relationships and employment due to gambling. Treatment may incorporate participation in Gamblers' Anonymous, psychotherapy, and medications like carbamazepine, topiramate, lithium, naltrexone, antidepressants, clomipramine, and fluvoxamine.
Heart Attack Prevention
Heart disease and heart attacks can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle with diet, exercise, and stress management. Symptoms of heart attack in men and women include chest discomfort and pain in the shoulder, neck, jaw, stomach, or back. Women experience the same symptoms as men; however, they also may experience: Extreme fatigue Pain in the upper abdomen Dizziness Fainting Leading a healthy lifestyle with a heart healthy low-fat diet, and exercise can help prevent heart disease and heart attack.
Postpartum depression is a form of depression that occurs within a year after delivery. It is thought that rapid hormone changes after childbirth may lead to depression. Symptoms of postpartum depression include crying a lot, headaches, chest pains, eating too little or too much, sleeping too little or too much, withdrawal from friends and family, and feeling irritable, sad, hopeless, worthless, guilty, and overwhelmed. Treatment typically involves talk therapy and medication.
Kleine-Levin syndrome is a rare sleep condition, primarily affecting adolescent males. Symptoms of Kleine-Levin syndrome include recurring but reversible periods "episodes" of excessive sleep. There is no definitive treatment for Kleine-Levin syndrome. Medication can be prescribed to treat sleepiness and episodes.
Pregnancy and Drugs (Prescription and OTC)
Taking prescription medications or over-the-counter drugs or supplements should be discussed with your doctor. There are some medications that have been found to cause no problems in pregnancy, however, medications such as Accutane for acne, should never be taken during pregnancy.
Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens
Bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is a disorder that causes unusual and extreme mood changes. Symptoms of bipolar disorder in children and teens include having trouble concentrating, behaving in risky ways, and losing interest in activities they once enjoyed. Treatment for bipolar disorder in children and teenagers incorporates psychotherapy and medications.
Treatment & Diagnosis
- Depression FAQs
- Bipolar Disorder Mania FAQs
- Moods FAQs
- Medication Disposal
- Dangers of Mixing Medications
- How To Reduce Your Medication Costs
- Pharmacy Visit, How To Get The Most Out of Your Visit
- Indications for Drugs: Approved vs. Non-approved
- Drugs: Buying Prescription Drugs Online Safely
- Drugs: The Most Common Medication Errors
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and 9-11
- Generic Drugs, Are They as Good as Brand-Names?
Medications & Supplements
Prevention & Wellness
- Flameless Candle Batteries Pose Risk to Kids
- FDA to Weigh Dangers of Exploding E-Cigarettes
- Exploding E-Cigarettes Sending 'Vapers' to Burn Centers
- Strategies That Work to Help Prevent Suicides
- Lithium Beats Newer Meds for Bipolar Disorder, Study Finds
- Can the Anesthetic Ketamine Ease Suicidal Thoughts?
- Hoverboard Injuries, Fires on Rise
- Research Gives Clues to Why Some Benefit More From Drug for Bipolar Disorder
- High Blood Pressure May Up Psoriasis Risk for Women
- Antidepressants in Pregnancy Won't Harm Baby's Heart, Study Suggests
- Many Kids With Autism on Multiple Medications, Study Finds
- Antipsychotic Drugs May Triple Kids' Diabetes Risk, Study Suggests
- Older, Cheap Drug May Cut Suicide Risk for People With Mood Disorders
- Prescription Meds Can Put on Unwanted Pounds
- Bipolar Drug May Spur Weight Gain, Thyroid Problems: Review
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Report Problems to the Food and Drug Administration
You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA. Visit the FDA MedWatch website or call 1-800-FDA-1088.