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Diagnosing and treating schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious disease. But with proper treatment, the symptoms can often be managed.

Schizophrenia is one of the most serious mental illnesses. But treatment can usually offer some relief.

Diagnosing schizophrenia

There is no physical test for schizophrenia. If a person has symptoms of the illness, a doctor may first rule out underlying conditions by taking a medical history, doing a physical exam, and taking blood and urine samples to check for drug use. Some drugs can cause symptoms that resemble schizophrenia.

The diagnosis is generally made based on a specific set of symptoms that have persisted for months, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Symptoms can include social withdrawal, hallucinations, delusions, strange behaviors, a loss of contact with reality and increasing difficulty acting or doing things normally.

Treatment with medication

Antipsychotic medications are the primary treatment for schizophrenia. They may be given as pills, liquids, patches or long-acting injections. These drugs help control hallucinations and delusions and allow the person to function more normally.

The dosage of the drugs can vary greatly, depending on how a person responds. The goal is to relieve symptoms as much as possible while causing the fewest side effects.

Side effects can include involuntary movements, weight gain, dry mouth, blurred vision, drowsiness or stiffness. More rarely, the medicines may cause a marked reduction in white blood cells that normally fight infections.

Newer drugs tend to have fewer side effects, but all people taking antipsychotic medicines are monitored somewhat closely.

People with schizophrenia may also resist treatment because the side effects seem worse than the illness or because they don't realize they're ill. The family and doctor can work together to help ensure that these people continue with treatment.

Other treatments

In addition to medicines, people with schizophrenia may be treated with other therapies that can help them adjust to everyday life.

Rehabilitation programs help with things such as social skills and job training. This is important since schizophrenia affects many people in their career-forming years. They may not have the skills needed to get a job. They may also need guidance with managing money and using public transportation.

Psychotherapy involves regular talks with a mental health professional. By talking about their world with someone outside of it, people may gradually come to understand more about themselves and their illness.

Self-help groups bring together people with schizophrenia so they can share their experiences. Support groups are also available for people who have a family member with the illness.

Early and often

As with many diseases, schizophrenia is best treated early. Once treatment starts, regular checkups are important to ensure that the treatment is working.

According to Mental Health America, early warning signs of the disease can include:

  • Hearing or seeing something that isn't there.
  • A constant feeling of being watched.
  • Peculiar or nonsensical way of speaking or writing.
  • Strange body positioning.
  • Feeling indifferent to very important situations.
  • Worsening performance at work or school.
  • A change in personal hygiene and appearance.
  • A change in personality.
  • Increasing withdrawal from social situations.
  • Irrational, angry or fearful responses to loved ones.
  • Being unable to sleep or concentrate.
  • Inappropriate or bizarre behavior.
  • Extreme preoccupation with religion or the occult.

If you notice several of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one for more than two weeks, it's time to see a doctor.

Reviewed 3/20/2021

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