Updated on November 7, 2023
3 min read

How Do Anticholinergics Work, and What Effects Do They Have?

What are Anticholinergic Drugs?

Anticholinergic drugs are prescription medications used to treat urinary, lung, and stomach issues.

They work by inhibiting the parasympathetic nervous system. This is responsible for automatic functions such as tears, saliva, and the feeling of a full bladder.

Doctors prescribe them to treat various health conditions, including urinary incontinence, lung diseases, and cholinergic toxicity. They are also used during initiation and maintenance of anesthesia, surgery, and to treat Parkinson’s disease.

They're usually prescribed to elderly people but are safe for all ages when used properly.

There are two different targets of anticholinergic medications:

  1. One affects the central nervous system and nerve endings in smooth muscles and the eyes.
  2. The other affects the peripheral nervous system and can relax muscles.

Anticholinergics treat:

  • Vertigo
  • Motion sickness
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Diarrhea
  • Diverticulitis 
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cystitis
  • An overactive blader
  • Prostatitis
  • Urethritis
  • Asthma
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
  • Extrapyramidal symptoms, which are a side effect of antipsychotic drugs
  • Short-term insomnia
  • Sinus bradycardia due to an overly sensitive vagus nerve

Some anticholinergic drugs also block the effects of poisons and can treat dementia symptoms.

How Anticholinergics Work

Anticholinergic medications block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is responsible for transferring signals between the cells of the body. This results in relaxation of involuntary muscles like the lungs, urinary tract, and gut.

These drugs stop involuntary actions such as:

  • Digestion
  • Salivation
  • Urination
  • Mucus secretion

Because of the effects of anticholinergics and how they work, these drugs cause certain common side effects, such as dry mouth and trouble urinating.


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What Effects do Anticholinergic Drugs Have on the Body?

Users can experience a variety of side effects. Effects range from mild and to severe based on the drug.

Side Effects 

Possible side effects include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Constipation
  • Confusion
  • Decreased saliva
  • Decreased sweating
  • Delirium
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Hallucination
  • Memory problems
  • Sedation
  • Trouble urinating

Health Effects

In addition to these side effects, there is also a risk of developing dementia with long-term use. Be sure to speak to your doctor before using these drugs for an extended time.

A user may also experience heat exhaustion and heatstroke. This is due to the drug's ability to reduce sweating. When the body cannot sweat, its temperature rises and there is an increased risk of health problems.

People using these drugs should be aware of the adverse effects and avoid:

  • Exercise
  • Hot weather
  • Hot baths

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Why Would Someone Take an Anticholinergic?

Doctors prescribe anticholinergics for a variety of different reasons, including:

  • Preventing motion sickness and dizziness
  • Managing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Easing overactive bladder and incontinence
  • Preventing asthmatic episodes
  • Managing gastrointestinal disorders
  • Treating toxin poisoning, including poisonous mushrooms symptoms
  • Managing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
  • Managing symptoms of digestive and kidney diseases

These drugs are also given during surgery to maintain heartbeat, decrease saliva, and relax the patient.

Are Anticholinergic Drugs Addictive?

Yes. However, addiction is less common than with other drugs because they do not produce euphoria. Anticholinergics generally treat specific conditions and aren’t sought after by recreational users. 

Anticholinergic drugs should only be used according to a doctor’s prescription.

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Risks of Taking Anticholinergic Medications

The most immediate risk of using anticholinergic drugs is overdose. Using multiple anticholinergic drugs and the use of alcohol also increases this risk.

Symptoms of an anticholinergic overdose include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Confusion and cognitive impairment
  • Constipation
  • Delirium
  • Dizziness
  • Elevated heart rate 
  • Fever
  • Inability to urinate
  • Severe Drowsiness
  • Severe hallucinations
  • Slurred speech
  • Agitation

Taking these drugs with alcohol increases the risk of adverse effects. Drinking alcohol while using them also puts you at risk of losing consciousness and can be fatal.

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Updated on November 7, 2023

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