Long Term Side Effects of Lithium
I have written extensively on lithium and its effectiveness in managing mood disorders, particularly Bipolar Disorder. It's also an excellent med for people with suicidal ideation, protects neurons in the brain, slows down aging, and may prevent Dementia.
However, like almost every other medication, it's not all rosy with lithium. Lithium, too, has its side effects, including short-term and long-term effects.
The long term side effects of lithium include kidney damage, thyroid issues, and sometimes cognitive issues as well.
But the good news is, you can significantly reduce the risks of side effects of lithium by using the drug in subtherapeutic doses, referred to as low dose lithium.
But there are also some common, less severe short-term side effects of lithium we need to know.
Common side effects of lithium
The common side effects of lithium are typically mild and go away by themselves. They're also more likely to occur when you start using the drug. And if you're on low dose lithium (subtherapeutic dose), you may not have any significant issues using the drug. However, some people find that lithium makes them feel a bit numb and nauseous.
The common side effects of lithium include:
- Dry mouth
- Feeling thirsty often
- Urinating more often
- Metallic taste
- Hands shaking slightly
One possible reason for these side effects is that lithium affects the flow of sodium through nerves and muscles in the body. And sodium is associated with excitation.
Severe side effects of lithium
Rarely, you may experience severe side effects from lithium use because there's too much of it in your blood. This is known as lithium toxicity. And that is why it's crucial to have your blood tested regularly to ensure safe levels.
Severe side effects of lithium include:
- Blurred vision
- Feeling very thirsty and peeing more often than normal
- Feeling lightheaded
- Difficulty speaking
- Muscle spasms that may affect the face, eyes, or neck
- Feeling confused and blacking out
If you experience any of these side effects due to lithium toxicity, call for help immediately.
Long term effects of lithium use
Because lithium affects hydration and urination, when used for long term, say 30-40 years, it may cause kidney damage, thyroid issues, and sometimes cognitive failure. But these long term side effects of lithium typically occur at high doses. So using low dose lithium is in your best interest.
However, if you do experience some kidney damage, it may be reversible if detected early. There are also medications to counteract the thyroid issues if they were to manifest.
How to manage lithium's side effects
Lithium taken in low doses significantly quells the risks of side effects. Anything below 0.6 mmol/L is considered subtherapeutic or low dose. And thankfully, much evidence supports that such low doses are pretty effective.
So, aim for as low a dose as does the job, preferably subtherapeutic levels, to prevent the long-term adverse effects of lithium.
It's also good to drink plenty of fluids and minimize alcohol (as it can cause dehydration) when on lithium medication.
The best way to prevent problems is to check your blood lithium levels regularly for lithium toxicity. Also, check your thyroid levels. If the levels are just right, the risks of side effects are minimal. And if the levels rise at any point, your healthcare provider may suggest the best course of action.
Otherwise, lithium may prolong the life of organs overall.
Who can't take lithium?
While lithium is considered a miracle in psychiatry, not everyone is well-suited for this prescription. For example, lithium is not recommended in pregnant women, especially during the first trimester, where the risk of problems to the fetus is highest.
Nevertheless, your doctor may evaluate your health and determine if the benefits far outweigh the risks and may prescribe it to keep you well.
Lithium may not be recommended for you if:
- You have an allergic reaction to lithium
- You have kidney problems
- You have a cardiovascular disease
- You have hypothyroidism
- You have low levels of sodium in your body
- You need to undergo surgery
- You're trying to get pregnant or are breastfeeding
- You have Addison's disease
- You have Brugada syndrome
Again, none of these situations completely preclude you from using lithium. It's up to your doctor to evaluate the severity of your condition and weigh that against the benefits of the drug.