What Are OCD Treatment Options And Medications Side Effects?

In the past three decades, research has been ongoing to find the best treatment for OCD. Over the years, treatment options for OCD have proven to be more and more effective. Although a comprehensive solution is not guaranteed, symptoms can usually be managed.

Studies¹ have shown that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help reduce the symptoms of OCD. These symptoms include obsessive and compulsive behaviors that affect a person's quality of life.

Obsessions may include excessive fear of causing harm or contamination or needing orderliness. Compulsive behavior may be constant cleaning, checking, counting, and arranging.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

What is OCD?

OCD is the short form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental health condition characterized by recurring obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are a cycle of unwanted thoughts and urge that make you feel distressed. Compulsions are behaviors that aim to overcome distress or alleviate obsessions.

It is normal to have specific habits. If you like to maintain good hygiene or keep your closet color coordinated, it doesn't mean you have OCD. We all have some particular preference or routine that might fall under the category of obsessions and compulsions.

However, when these behaviors interfere with your daily life, it could be OCD. It would be best to see a mental health practitioner for a proper diagnosis.

What are the treatment options for OCD?

The most effective treatments for OCD include psychotherapy or medication. A combination of both is the best option in most cases. The FDA has approved certain types of antidepressants for OCD treatment.

Psychotherapy for OCD involves a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) known as exposure and response prevention (ERP). During an ERP session, your therapist guides you as you allow yourself to be exposed to thoughts, situations, images, or objects that typically make you anxious and trigger your obsessions. They ask you not to do the compulsions that ease your distress and anxiety. Over time, most OCD patients experience a decrease in their anxiety when exposed to their triggers.

What is the best medication for OCD?

The most common prescription medicines for OCD are SSRIs, a type of antidepressant that works by raising serotonin levels in the brain. They can help reduce OCD symptoms, especially if combined with CBT.

Your doctor may recommend the following SSRIs.² It's worth mentioning that no single SSRI is more effective for OCD than others.

  • Fluoxetine for adults and children aged seven and up

  • Fluvoxamine for adults and children aged eight and up

  • Paroxetine for adults only

  • Sertraline for adults and children aged six and up

Clomipramine is a tricyclic antidepressant that the FDA has also approved for treating OCD in adults and children aged ten years and older. Tricyclic antidepressants can be very effective but have more side effects than other antidepressants. They aren't usually the first treatment option.

Does medication make you feel worse?

Not exactly. While medication should make you feel better, our bodies respond to medication differently. SSRIs are generally well tolerated by most patients with OCD. You may experience SSRI side effects, which should disappear as your body gets used to the medicine. It is important to talk to your doctor if the drugs make you feel worse.

What are the side effects of OCD medication?

If your doctor prescribes medication to treat your OCD, take it exactly as directed. However, it may take several weeks or even months for your medicine to take full effect. Don't stop taking the drug if you experience side effects, as withdrawal symptoms may occur. Start by consulting your doctor for guidance.

The following are some of the most common side effects of medication used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder:

  • Drowsiness

  • Dryness of the mouth

  • Insomnia 

  • Nervousness

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Headaches

  • Low sex drive 

  • Erection difficulties 

  • Poor vision

Is OCD medication safe?

Although antidepressant drugs used to treat OCD are generally safe, children, teenagers, and young adults have reported developing suicidal thoughts. If your child starts taking antidepressants, monitor them for these side effects.

Most negative effects disappear after a few weeks of using the medicine. If they don't, your doctor may change your medication. Keeping track of adverse effects is critical so you can notify your doctor.

Before using any OCD medicine, tell your doctor about any other medications you're taking or any medical issues you have. It is also essential to inform them if you're pregnant or planning to get pregnant.

How can you reduce the side effects of OCD medicine?

You should see a doctor if you develop any of the listed side effects. If your doctor approves, you may take the SSRIs in the evening to minimize their impact. This means you'll be sleeping when the drug level in your body is at its maximum.

Below are a few more suggestions that may be useful:

  • If you're feeling nauseous, take the SSRI with food or after a meal

  • If your doctor approves, take the SSRI first thing in the morning if it causes sleep problems.

  • If you develop diarrhea, drink plenty of fluids so you stay hydrated. Do not take any medications to treat diarrhea or vomiting without consulting your doctor.

  • If you develop dry mouth, chew gum or sweets that do not contain sugar.

  • If you have a headache, get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. It would also help to avoid alcohol.

  • If you are constipated, consume extra high-fiber meals like fresh fruit, vegetables, and cereals, and drink plenty of water. Also, exercising more often or increasing physical activity by walking every day could also help.

Is OCD curable with medication?

OCD medication does not cure the condition. It only helps reduce the symptoms so your quality of life can improve. Patients report notable to moderate improvement after 8–12 weeks on medication. The most impact is remarkable from 12 weeks, although it might take up to 6 months for some patients.

On the first try, at least 60% of people will see some improvement with drugs. About 20% of those treated with medication only achieve complete elimination of symptoms. This is why more comprehensive and long-term outcomes need both medication and CBT.

About 20% of OCD patients don't see a significant change in their symptoms with SSRI treatment, even after the timeframe where they should see improvements (i.e., 8–12 weeks). In this case, they may need to try a different medication.

Can you use OCD medicine when pregnant?

Most doctors recommend treating OCD with CBT alone if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. However, OCD frequently worsens during pregnancy. If you require medication, it is preferable to use it sparingly and choose an SSRI over clomipramine.

What if OCD exists with other mental conditions? 

When another psychiatric issue is present, your doctor will most likely combine OCD treatment with medication for the other conditions. Sometimes, you may be prescribed the same medicine to treat two conditions. For example, you can use an SSRI  for OCD and panic disorder. In other circumstances, such as when mania and OCD coexist, you will likely need more than one medication.

The lowdown

Make an appointment with your doctor or psychiatrist right away if you think you might have OCD. Do not be discouraged since you and your doctor can try different medications to find the one that works best for you.

Your doctor may also suggest you get psychotherapy while on medication to help you develop coping skills for OCD symptoms. You can manage your OCD  with the correct treatment and support. There is hope for you to live a fulfilling life.

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

Have you considered clinical trials for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Do you want to know if there are any Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) clinical trials you might be eligible for?
Have you taken medication for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?
Have you been diagnosed with Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Editor’s picks


Join our email list

Want all the latest clinical trial and HealthMatch news in your inbox? We thought you might! Sign up below.