Drugs used to relieve behavioural and psychological symptoms

Behavioural and psychological symptoms are very common, usually developing as a person’s dementia progresses and can often be successfully managed without medication.

Drugs for behavioural and psychological symptoms
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People with dementia often develop changes as their condition progresses.

These include changes in their behaviour and feelings, the things they think and how they perceive the world. Collectively, these changes are referred to as ‘behavioural and psychological symptoms’.

They are often more distressing for the person with dementia, and those supporting them, than problems such as memory loss.

Types of symptoms

Behavioural and psychological symptoms may come and go over time, or they may persist. These changes can be very distressing, both for the person with dementia and those caring for or supporting them. Distressing symptoms may include:

  • Delusions – persistently believing things that are not true, such as that the carer or a family member is an impostor. This may cause the person to feel angry and behave in a hostile way.
  • Hallucinations – seeing or hearing things that aren’t there, such as hearing strange voices. This might make the person with dementia feel afraid and they might act defensively as a result.
  • Agitation and aggressive behaviour – these are sometimes known as ‘behaviours that challenge’ because they are challenging for both the person and those around them.

If a person with dementia develops any of these changes, it is important to remember that they are not to blame or ‘behaving badly’. Their symptoms may be a direct result of changes in their brain, or because of a general health problem such as discomfort caused by pain or infection.

These symptoms can also be related to the care a person is receiving, their environment or how they are spending their time. For example, the person may be agitated because they are anxious or because they are somewhere that is very noisy. Symptoms can become worse because the person’s dementia makes it harder for them to make sense of the world.

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Managing symptoms without drugs

There are a number of different ways to relieve behavioural and psychological symptoms in a person with dementia.

However, drugs shouldn’t be the first thing that is tried. Most behavioural and psychological symptoms improve within four weeks of making simple changes – such as treating pain and spending more time with the person  without the need for medication. These non-drug approaches should generally be tried first.

If non-drug approaches do not work in managing behavioural and psychological symptoms, or if symptoms are severe, there are drugs that can be used to treat them.

For more about non-drug approaches available see our pages on behaviour changes and aggressive behaviour.

Further reading