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How to Treat OCD

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/26/2021

The first modern treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) came about in the 1950s, but a lot has changed since then. We know more about the disorder and have more treatment options.

For starters, OCD is more than just a series of neat-freak tendencies and is in fact a type of anxiety disorder. 

And treatment for OCD has become much more nuanced over the years to target the symptoms associated with the disorder. 

Read on to learn more about OCD along with four common treatment options proven to help. 

What Is OCD?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the many anxiety disorders within the anxiety disorder family. 

OCD specifically relates to compulsive thoughts and behaviors that someone typically will repeat over and over again. 

This goes beyond just disturbing thoughts or uncontrollable urges. 

OCD can become so excessive that it can disrupt your life.  

This often presents itself as excessive worrying, and for example, extreme concern about things like germs —resulting in behaviors like repetitive hand washing. 

(Here’s how to tell if you might have anxiety.)

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OCD Symptoms 

OCD symptoms often are categorized by obsessions or compulsions and uncontrollable, repetitive behaviors. 

To be diagnosed with OCD, you must experience obsessions or compulsions for more than an hour a day, and/or experience significant daily distress from them that disturbs your lifestyle or routine.

Obsessive Thoughts 

Obsessions are any repetitive thought or urge that ultimately causes anxiety. 

Some common obsessions associated with OCD include:

  • Fear of germs 

  • Fear of contamination 

  • Repetitive thoughts about sex 

  • Repetitive thoughts about religion 

  • Repetitive thoughts about harm 

  • Aggressive thoughts in general

  • Need for physical symmetry 

Compulsive Behaviors 

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that stem from obsessive thoughts. 

Common compulsions associated with OCD include:

  • Extensive cleaning 

  • Handwashing (sometimes multiple times) 

  • Specific organization or arranging 

  • Excessive checking on things 

  • Repetitive counting 

It’s important to note that all of us may occasionally do some of these specific behaviors. 

However, the difference with someone with OCD is how often they spend on tasks like this and the impact of these tasks on quality of life. 

For example, someone with OCD will likely feel no control over these types of thoughts and behaviors, spend a lot of time responding to these thoughts, and experience daily disruption due to these thoughts.

Physical Tics 

Some people might experience tics with OCD, though they not as common as obsessions and compulsions and not needed for a diagnosis of the disorder. 

Tics are repetitive physical movements such as clearing the throat, jerking the head, shrugging or blinking. 

A note about OCD: Receiving a diagnosis can depend on your age, as obsessive compulsive disorder can show up differently in children and young adults (vs. adults). 

An early-onset case of OCD (diagnosed in childhood or the early teenage years) typically will present as more severe, male dominant and may come with other symptoms such as tics. 

The average age of diagnosis for OCD is around 19 years-old, yet adults still can develop the disorder. 

Treatment Options for OCD

Over time, healthcare professionals have been learning more and more about how to treat OCD. Like many mental health illnesses, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Standard treatment for OCD typically involves a combination of therapy and medication — however, the specifics of a treatment plan will depend on various factors, including your individual needs.

Here are four treatment options for OCD, many of which are used in combination with one another. 

Counseling and Therapy 

According to the OCD Foundation, the first line of treatment considered for anyone diagnosed is therapy for OCD

More specifically, healthcare providers may recommend cognitive therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure-response prevention (ERP).  Here’s more about these methods:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a research-based therapy practice that involves evaluating thoughts and behaviors. 

CBT stems from the belief that psychological difficulties can be rooted in unhelpful thoughts and learned patterns. 

With CBT, psychologists and therapists hope to help patients understand thoughts and behaviors to create better coping methods. 

And then over time — those same behaviors or thoughts can be addressed differently. 

One way CBT works for OCD is through a process called exposure and response prevention. Many OCD symptoms force people to deal with their obsessive thoughts and compulsions, so this response prevention helps patients manage them. 

Exposure Response Prevention 

Exposure response prevention takes place under the safe guidance of a therapist, and involves exposing someone to specific anxiety triggers or obsessions. 

The therapist then helps them through the issue without sliding into obsessive-compulsive behaviors. 

ERP can slowly and carefully expose someone to sources of anxiety to better manage the response (or compulsions) to such anxiety-producing triggers, thus improving anxiety symptoms over time. 

Antidepressant Medication to Treat OCD

Another way to treat OCD is through medication — specifically antidepressants. 

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most popular for treating OCD, and FDA-approved antidepressant options include:

Fluvoxamine

Fluvoxamine was the first antidepressant shown to be effective for treating OCD. Fluvoxamine is still a popular choice among SSRIs for OCD.

Sertraline 

Sertraline (which is the generic version of Zoloft®) is another effective SSRI found to help with both short-term and long-term treatment of OCD. 

Paroxetine

Paroxetine (the generic name for Paxil®) is an FDA-approved SSRI for the treatment of OCD. For most patients, it helps decrease symptoms, while others may find it helps them go into remission. 

Fluoxetine 

Similarly, fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac®) is an FDA-approved SSRI treatment for OCD because of its ability to affect serotonin levels. 

Other SSRIs not approved by the FDA for OCD treatment but sometimes used off-label include citalopram and escitalopram. 

Citalopram 

Citalopram (the generic name for Celexa®) is sometimes used off-label to treat OCD, and has been shown to work as well as other SSRIs in helping to manage OCD symptoms. However, it is not approved by the FDA to treat OCD. 

In fact, in 2011 the FDA issued a black-box warning about using citalopram in doses beyond 40 mg/day, as it could cause arrhythmia and other potential ECG abnormalities. 

It is also not recommended in doses above 20 mg/day for the elderly, and it’s said to be best avoided in general for anyone prone to arrhythmia.

Escitalopram 

Escitalopram (which is the generic name for Lexapro®) has also been shown to reduce OCD symptoms, and is sometimes prescribed off-label to treat the disorder. 

However, one study does point out how escitalopram (and other SSRIs) might be less effective in reducing certain OCD symptoms, like hoarding.                                                                     

Other Ways to Treat OCD 

Two other OCD treatment options that may be offered depending on the severity of OCD include inpatient programs and antipsychotic medications. 

It should be noted that both of these are more typical if the first-line treatments (therapy and medication) do not work. 

These options are also sometimes combined with the other, aforementioned OCD treatment options. 

Inpatient Programs 

Most OCD treatment is outpatient, meaning you can live at home and go about your life at the same time. 

For the most part, suggested treatment is whatever will be the least restrictive yet effective. 

However, for severe or complicated OCD, inpatient care might be necessary. 

Inpatient care involves support and treatment that happens within a facility and usually over a period of time. 

Inpatient facilities are often centers that specialize in supporting those with severe cases of OCD.

Antipsychotic Medication 

When antidepressants are not working, a healthcare provider may consider adding antipsychotic medication to an OCD treatment plan. 

Antipsychotics are not given to replace antidepressants but instead are added to antidepressant treatment. 

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How to Treat OCD: Finding Your Options

As researchers and healthcare professionals learn more about OCD as a mental health disorder (and better understand the symptoms that occur with it) more treatment options will become available. 

In the meantime, in person or online therapy and medication serve as the gold-standard plan when it comes to treating OCD. 

OCD can be a debilitating disorder, but with therapy like CBT combined with medication, it can be managed and possibly overcome.

Your best place to start? Consult with a healthcare professional to discuss your symptoms and a potential treatment plan. Then you can be set on your best course of action, and treat your OCD for good.

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Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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