Bipolar Disorder Medication Spotlight: Lexapro (Escitalopram)
With this post, we continue our biweekly series on medications used to treat bipolar disorder and related symptoms. We have already covered lithium, along with anti-seizure and atypical antipsychotics commonly used as anti-manic medications or mood stabilizers in bipolar disorder. We introduced our coverage of SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) antidepressants with a post on Prozac (fluoxetine). This week, we continue our series on SSRI antidepressants with this post on Lexapro (escitalopram).
As a group, the SSRI’s share many of the same potential benefits and potential negative side effects, so we encourage you to read the Prozac post first to get up to speed about general information relating to SSRI’s, including how SSRI’s work and important cautions about using any antidepressant to treat depression in bipolar. In this post, we focus on Lexapro’s profile in treating bipolar depression and depression in general.
Lexapro’s potential benefits are in line with those of other SSRI’s. It has been approved for treatment of depression and certain anxiety conditions in patients 18 years and older:
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) – Lexapro also has been approved for acute and maintenance treatment of MDD in adolescents aged 12 to 17
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in adults
Lexapro may also be useful in treating other anxiety and mood disorders, including the following:
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar Depression
Typical doses of Lexapro range from 10 mg to 20 mg taken once daily, higher in some cases, same time each day, but follow your prescriber’s recommendations on dose and when to take it.
Potential Side Effects
Like most medications in its class, Lexapro can potentially cause any of several negative side effects. The most serious are the following:
- Increased suicidal thoughts in children or teens: Clearly there is an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thinking in people with bipolar and depression as a whole. A large review of studies done on children and adolescents who were treated with antidepressants showed that there was a slight increase in the risk that these children would develop suicidal thoughts, compared to children taking placebo. Even with the increased risk, the rate of this side effect remains very, very low. And the increased risk relates only to suicidal thinking- there have been no reports indicating any increased risk of completed suicides with the medications. These medications are far more likely to decrease the risk of suicide than to increase it. Careful monitoring and communication with the prescriber, especially early on in treatment with SSRI’s, is essential in reducing this risk as much as possible.
- Increased risk of mania: As mentioned earlier in this post, a person with bipolar disorder taking an antidepressant without the protection of a mood stabilizer may be at higher risk of shifting into mania or hypomania. While there is some indication that some antidepressants have less risk of manic switching, the risk seems to be present in all antidepressants. The rate of switching and the actual level of risk is not clear at this time – some researchers suspect it is very high and others feel it is actually much lower than is generally presumed.
- Agitation, increased anxiety, or worsening depression or other paradoxical effects: This is not the same as a true manic switch, and can occur in people with or without bipolar disorder who take SSRI’s. In a small group of people, these medicines seem to irritate the brain wiring rather than soothe it. This appears to be more common in children and adolescents, but can occur in a subset of adults as well. Close monitoring with your prescriber will be important in detecting this.
- Serotonin syndrome: When combined with medicines used to treat migraine headaches known triptans, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex), or other drugs that elevate brain levels of serotonin (including the illegal drug Ecstasy), a life-threatening condition called serotonin syndrome can occur. Symptoms include restlessness, hallucinations, loss of coordination, racing heart, increased body temperature, blood pressure fluctuations, overactive reflexes, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, coma, and possibly death.
- Persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN): There are studies showing that babies born to mothers who were taking SSRI’S in the third trimester of pregnancy have an increased likelihood of this condition. Babies born with PPHN have restricted blood flow through their heart and lungs, reducing the supply of oxygen to their bodies. This can make them very ill and increase their risk of death. If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, consult with the doctor who’s managing your medications.
Other less serious side effects can include the following (Note: Many of these side effects are transient and occur when first taking these medications but do not persist.):
- Dry mouth
- Loss of strength
- Weight loss or gain
- Changes in sexual function
Remember: Any antidepressant can take 2-3 weeks or even longer to become fully effective; it may take several weeks to work up to a therapeutic dose. This means that your depression may not lift for several weeks. I often tell patients that however they feel in the first two weeks is unlikely to be how they feel in a month – so if they are feeling some early side effects, hold on because they will likely get better. Patience is important in getting these medications to work, but if you have any concerns about how you are feeling, you should contact your doctor. You will most likely have a follow-up visit with your doctor within a month or less of starting the medications; this is a good time frame for checking in to see if benefits have started or if side effects have faded or persisted.
Lexapro is closely related to the medication, Celexa (Citalopram). Citalopram is made up of two types of molecules that are mirror images of each other. Lexapro is made up of only one of the mirror images. It has been marketed as “cleaner” due to this molecular structure, and the implication has been that it would have fewer side effects than Celexa. In general Lexapro runs about the same risks of side effects as other SSRI’s. The differences in positive and negative responses to the various medications appear to be more related to any one individual’s brain and body wiring rather than the subtle differences between some of these medications.
Lexapro has FDA indications for major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, although it’s used extensively for other types of depression and anxiety. It has no specific indications for use in bipolar depression. I have a number of patients on it, but in general I have it further down my list simply because the older medications are effective and well tolerated, so I don’t have to proceed this far down the list. Once I have tried two or three SSRI’s, it usually means I will move on to another class of medications. But I certainly have many patients on Lexapro who have improvement in symptoms and minimal side effects. It is a good medication, just kind of an additional option in my play book.
For more about Lexapro, visit Forest Pharmaceuticals’ Lexapro page.
If you’ve taken any form of Lexapro for bipolar depression or are a doctor who has prescribed it, please share your experiences, insights, and observations.
Fink, C. (2009). Bipolar Disorder Medication Spotlight: Lexapro (Escitalopram). Psych Central. Retrieved on March 18, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/bipolar/2009/04/bipolar-disorder-medication-spotlight-lexapro-escitalopram/