Medications to Treat OCD

Published on: 23 Nov 2021

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a specific type of anxiety disorder where frequent behaviors and thoughts can have a negative impact on daily life. While the cause for OCD isn’t totally understood, researchers think it’s ultimately the result of poor communication between various parts of the brain. OCD affects an estimated 2 – 3% of the population. 

There are several types of treatment for OCD, including therapy, OCD medication, or a combination of the two as OCD is a hard anxiety disorder and most of the time it needs much higher doses or at times a combination of medications to clear up all the symptoms. OCD can often be most effectively treated with a specific type of therapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and the combined use of medication.

An antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is typically the first type of medication prescribed to treat OCD. There are also some other off-label medications that your doctor may suggest if SSRIs prove ineffective.

Read on to learn more about obsessive-compulsive disorder medication along with the risks and benefits of anything an online psychiatrist may prescribe you.

Types of Medications Used to Treat OCD

Even though medication isn’t always the first recommended form of treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are multiple OCD treatment medications available. And while SSRIs are typically the first line of treatment, there are a few other meds that might be suggested if SSRIs have failed to be effective.

SSRIs

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be a suggested treatment approach for OCD, often combined with a therapy technique known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

SSRIs are an antidepressant that can alleviate symptoms of OCD. They work in the brain to up serotonin levels. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that impacts and stabilizes mood, happiness, and a general sense of well-being. 

While it is understood what SSRIs do, it is not completely understood why or how they’re helpful for people who have OCD. What is known is that they can reduce the severity of OCD symptoms while also helping to relieve some anxiety that people with OCD often experience.

Popular SSRIs to treat OCD include:

  • Celexa (Citalopram)
  • Lexapro (Escitalopram)
  • Prozac* (Fluoxetine)
  • Luvox* (Fluvoxamine)
  • Paxil/Pexeva* (Paroxetine)
  • Zoloft* (Sertraline)

*Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use to treat OCD

Possible side effects of SSRIs to treat OCD:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased libido

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)

Similar to a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) were also originally developed as a treatment for depression. If SSRIs haven’t been effective in relieving symptoms of OCD, a TCA may be prescribed. 

TCAs work like SSRIs in that they also increase serotonin levels, but additionally, they also affect norepinephrine levels in the brain to help with communication between brain cells. Norepinephrine is a chemical signal that works to control stress response, improve attention, and stabilize emotions and behaviors.

Though TCAs might be effective in treating OCD, they’re typically not the first OCD medication that’s tried because of their side effects. 

TCA prescribed to treat OCD:

  • Clomipramine (Anafranil) 

Possible side effects of Clomipramine to treat OCD:

  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased sexual ability
  • Nervousness
  • Tremors

Benzodiazepines 

Occasionally a medication type known as benzodiazepines is prescribed to treat OCD. This class of medication works fast to relieve anxiety, but in general, it’s not widely considered to be effective on its own in treating OCD. 

For one thing, there’s great potential to develop tolerance to benzodiazepines. Addiction is another concern. As a result, these drugs must be taken very cautiously. A final worry with the use of benzodiazepines as an OCD medication is that they often create powerful and extreme withdrawal symptoms when people discontinue them. They’re typically not meant to be taken long-term, but they might be prescribed in addition to an SSRI until the antidepressant takes full effect.

Benzodiazepines are a central nervous system depressant that works by increasing the effect of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can give a relaxed, almost sedative effect.

Popular benzodiazepines to treat OCD include:

  • Xanax (Alprazolam)
  • Ativan (Lorazepam) 
  • Valium (Diazepam)
  • Klonopin (Clonazepam)

Possible side effects of benzodiazepines to treat OCD:

  • Dizziness 
  • Lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle weakness
  • Memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Slurred speech

Medications Commonly Prescribed for OCD

The following OCD medication list isn’t complete, but it can give you an idea of the types of obsessive-compulsive disorder medication available. 

Name BrandGenericType Description
ZoloftSertralineSSRIShown to reduce symptoms of OCD in both children and adults. One of the most common medications to treat OCD. Increases serotonin levels in the brain.
PaxilParoxetineSSRIAntidepressant used to treat adults with OCD. Increases the mood enhancing chemical serotonin.
ProzacFluoxamineSSRICan alleviate depressive symptoms by reducing suicidal ideation and impulsiveness in OCD patients.  
LuvoxFluvoxamineSSRIWorks in the brain to decrease unwanted, persistent, and intrusive thoughts that encourage repeated tasks by those who have OCD. 
AnafranilClomipramineTCATCA that can treat recurrent feelings and repetitive actions. 
Xanax AlprazolamBenzodiazepineNot usually prescribed for OCD unless other medications haven’t been effective. Warning: may exacerbate OCD symptoms. 
Ativan LorazepamBenzodiazepineMight help reduce anxiety for people with OCD but has a high risk of abuse and addiction. 

Talk to your psychiatrist or healthcare professional about the possible risks and benefits associated with the above medications before starting treatment.

How to Get OCD Medication

If you’re wondering what the right OCD medication is for yi, talking to your doctor can be a good place to start. Together, you can come up with a treatment plan that gives you the best hope for managing your type of OCD.

You can obtain OCD medication by following the steps below:

  1. Get a diagnosis
    To be diagnosed with OCD, you’ll need to see a licensed provider or doctor.   
  2. Begin therapy or treatment
    Therapy is thought to be the most effective form of treatment. Usually, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure response prevention (ERP) is most helpful.
  3. Consider medication
    Sometimes, therapy alone doesn’t work. In this case, medication can be prescribed to treat OCD.
  4. Talk to a prescribe
    Your prescriber can help you identify the right medication for OCD. 

Should You Treat OCD with Medication? 

Obsessive-compulsive disorder medication might help you manage OCD in the most beneficial way possible. Of course, deciding to take a meditation is an important decision that you need to make for yourself, but understanding the positives and negatives will allow you to come to an informed decision.

Reaching out to your doctor or licensed provider and asking for help is a great way to begin the process. Together, you can decide which, if any, medication is right for you. While treatment may not result in a cure, it can help you manage your symptoms so that you can live the fullest life possible. In fact, studies show that up to 70% of people with OCD find their symptoms reduced once they opted for various treatment options. 

If you decide to talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about OCD treatment medication, you may want to ask the following questions.

Questions to ask your doctor:

  • Should I consider OCD medication?
    Getting help weighing the benefits and drawbacks of obsessive-compulsive disorder medication can ensure you make the best decision possible. 
  • What are the possible side effects of this medication?
    You always want to fully understand the potential side effects of any medication before you begin taking it. Your healthcare provider can explain what side effects to expect from each of the medications you might be considering.
  • What other treatments should I be considering for my OCD?
    Keep in mind, there are more treatments for OCD than just medication. We’ve talked a lot about the different types of therapy you might want to consider, but there are other options out there as well. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation, and various self-help techniques — to name a few — are some of the other options that can offer hope in treating OCD.
  • Should I consider treatment in conjunction with OCD medication?
    OCD medication likely won’t work on its own. Combining it with an effective form of therapy is usually going to offer the most beneficial results. 
  • Are there any holistic or self-help techniques I can try?
    Even though treating OCD generally requires help from a qualified mental health professional, there are actually holistic self-help techniques you can use to complement your therapy and/or medication.
    Learning to cope with your stress and manage anxiety are two important ways to deal with your OCD. Relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation are all great things to implement and can help ease your mind from obsessive thoughts.  
  • Should I consider therapy in addition to medication?
    Yes. Therapy is going to be instrumental in your OCD treatment plan. 
  • Are there any other conditions going on that could be contributing to my OCD?
    Co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are thought to contribute to developing OCD. Additionally, there are other related disorders that you should be aware of. Trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), excoriation (skin picking disorder), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and hoarding disorder (HD) are all obsessive-compulsive related disorders that can have a significant impact on your life. 

If you’re ready to start managing your OCD, seek out a licensed provider.

Sources: 

1. Robbins T, Vaghi M, Banca P. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Puzzles and Prospects. Neuron. 2019;102(1):27-47. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30946823/. Accessed October 22, 2021.

2. Stein D, Costa D, Lochner C et al. Obsessive–compulsive disorder. Nature Reviews Disease Primers. 2019;5(1). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7370844/. Accessed October 22, 2021.

3. Foa EB, Liebowitz MR, Kozak MJ, et al. Randomized, placebo-controlled trial of exposure and ritual prevention, clomipramine, and their combination in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2005;162(1):151-161. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15625214/. Accessed October 22, 2021.

4. Foa E, Liebowitz M, Kozak M et al. Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Exposure and Ritual Prevention, Clomipramine, and Their Combination in the Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2005;162(1):151-161. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15625214/. Accessed October 22, 2021.4.

5. Burchi E, Hollander E, Pallanti S. From Treatment Response to Recovery: A Realistic Goal in OCD. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018;21(11):1007-1013. https://academic.oup.com/ijnp/article/21/11/1007/5090057. Accessed October 22, 2021.

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