Short Term Side Effects from Lithium

Lithium, also known under the brand names Eskalith and Lithobid , works well at stabilizing the extreme mood states that characterize bipolar disorder. Individuals affected by this disorder experience extreme manic and depressive states, both of which can severely impair their ability to function in daily life.

Like most any treatment medication, some people may experience side effects from taking lithium. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an estimated 75 percent of people taking lithium experience side effects in some form. Short term side effects from lithium can vary depending on the person.

In some cases, short term side effects from lithium indicate a dosage adjustment is needed. In other cases, short term side effects from lithium result from how the drug interacts with a person’s physiological make-up.

How Lithium Works

lithium side effects

Lithium increases serotonin production and absorption in the brain

As a naturally occurring element, Lithium is an alkali metal belonging to the same chemical group as sodium and potassium. The drug’s salt-based properties affect the body’s overall electrolyte balance, which accounts for the potential for short term side effects from lithium.

When ingested, lithium enhances the flow of sodium through nerve and muscle cell membranes throughout the body. In effect, these interactions work to improve communications between cells.

Lithium also increases serotonin production and absorption in the brain. Serotonin, a primary neurotransmitter chemical, plays a central role in regulating mood states.

Lithium can produce a range of side effects and can actually be toxic at too high a dose. As a treatment for bipolar disorder, lithium works as a long-term or maintenance therapy, meaning patients may remain on the drug for years and even decades at a time.

Side Effects from Lithium

At the Start of Treatment

When first starting out on the drug, initial dosage calibrations must be precise in order to minimize the short term side effects from lithium. Common side effect symptoms include nausea and an all-over discomfort during the initial stage.

Initial short term side effects from lithium may well subside over time in some cases, though some patients may require a temporary dosage reduction until their body gets used to the drug’s effects. Other potential side effects occurring during the initial treatment stage include:

  • Fine hand tremors
  • Increase in thirst
  • Diarrhea
  • Appetite loss

It’s not uncommon for patients to go through multiple dosage adjustments during the early stages of treatment before the optimal dosage level is reached. Unfortunately, the high likelihood of short term side effects from lithium leads many patients to discontinue treatment prematurely.

Common Side Effects from Lithium

As a maintenance therapy treatment, lithium should be taken on a daily basis. In effect, lithium must reach a certain level in the blood in order to experience its therapeutic benefits.

Some people may opt to stop taking the drug once they start to feel better. Doing so not only increases the risk of short term side effects from lithium, but can also bring on a manic or depressive episode.

Short term side effects from lithium experienced by a great majority of patients include:

  • Headaches
  • Sedation
  • Acne, psoriasis
  • Increase in urination
  • Wetting the bed
  • Weight gain
  • Tremors

Tremors are the most common side effect of Lithium, affecting 65 percent of patients.


The difficulty in calibrating correct dosage levels at the start of treatment can predispose a person to toxicity when lithium levels run too high in the bloodstream. Since it can take several weeks before patients actually start to feel better, this allows for plenty of time for lithium blood levels to spike.

According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, signs of toxicity include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Severe tremors
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Seizures
  • Heavy sedation
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Muscle twitches

As a short term side effect from lithium, patients should seek immediate medical attention when toxicity develops.

Drug Interactions

Short term side effects from lithium can result from drug interactions when taking lithium alongside drugs that affect the brain’s serotonin levels. Drugs known to interact with lithium’s effects include:

  • Antidepressants – Prozac, Paxil, Tofranil, Elavil, Zoloft
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors or MAOIs – Parnate, Nardil
  • Dextromethorphan, commonly used in cough medicine formulas

Side effects associated with these drug combinations include:

  • Shivering
  • Heart problems
  • Severe anxiety

Lithium and Pregnancy

Taking lithium while pregnant can pose a risk to the developing fetus, especially during the first trimester. Lithium’s effects come with a slight risk of babies born with a condition known as Ebstein’s Anomaly, a heart valve defect.

Ultimately, stopping or not taking lithium during pregnancy can pose an even greater risk to the mother and fetus than taking the drug, so some consideration is warranted. In terms of breastfeeding, lithium does enter into the breast milk leaving infants vulnerable to short term side effects from lithium. Under these conditions, women who are breastfeeding should not take lithium.


The likelihood of developing short term side effects from lithium greatly increases in cases where patients have certain pre-existing medical conditions. Side effects can vary from condition to condition.

Medical conditions affected include:

  • Kidney disease – The kidneys process and eliminate lithium, which can place an added strain on kidney functions.
  • Thyroid disease – Lithium can aggravate thyroid conditions.
  • Heart disease – Lithium may cause irregular heart rhythms, especially in people affected by heart disease.

Since lithium affects brain serotonin levels, it also interferes with central nervous system functions. In this respect, lithium treatment should be stopped prior to surgical procedures that require anesthesia.


Considering the potential for short term side effects from lithium, anyone taking this drug should undergo ongoing monitoring for the duration of treatment. Monitoring should entail regular testing to avoid unforeseen health complications.

Monitoring entails regular testing in the form of:

  • Blood testing every six months to monitor lithium blood levels
  • Blood testing to check thyroid and kidney functions
  • Calcium level checks
  • Blood glucose level checks
  • Blood pressure
  • Lipid profile

Lithium’s ability to alter the body’s electrolyte and serotonin levels can have widespread effects on a person’s overall health when dosage levels are off. Likewise, missed doses and stopping lithium treatment altogether can bring on any number of health complications so it’s essential for patients to keep the lines of communication open with their physician.