Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/24/2022
If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your mental health provider may prescribe medication to help you control your symptoms.
Buspirone, which was previously available under the brand name BuSpar®, is one of several medications used to treat anxiety. It was approved by the FDA in 1986 and is often prescribed as an alternative to conventional anxiety medications.
Below, we’ve explained what buspirone is, as well as how it works to treat conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
We’ve also covered what you need to know if you’re considering using buspirone for anxiety, from how to use buspirone effectively to side effects, potential drug interactions and more.
BuSpar is a brand name that was used to market the anxiety medication buspirone. Although the brand name BuSpar was discontinued more than a decade ago, it’s still widely used as a casual, unofficial name for generic buspirone.
Bristol-Myers Squibb, the drug company that made and marketed BuSpar, didn’t take it off the market for safety or effectiveness reasons. Instead, it appears that buspirone, like many other drugs, was discontinued once generic versions of buspirone became widely available.
As the names BuSpar and buspirone are both still commonly used to refer to this medication, we’ve used both in the content below.
Buspirone is approved by the FDA as a treatment for anxiety disorders and for the short-term relief of anxiety symptoms. It’s also used off-label as an augmentation agent (meaning a drug that’s used with another medication) to treat certain forms of depression.
Although it’s effective at treating the symptoms of anxiety, buspirone generally isn’t used as a first-line treatment. Instead, it’s often used when other anxiety medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines, aren’t effective, or cause severe or persistent adverse effects.
In some cases, buspirone is prescribed at the same time as SSRIs to treat sexual side effects associated with antidepressants.
BuSpar belongs to a class of medications called azapirones. Experts aren’t precisely aware of how it treats anxiety, but they do know that it has a strong affinity for serotonin receptors found throughout the body.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter — a type of naturally-occurring chemical that delivers messages between neurons and other cells. Serotonin has many roles in the body, some of which involve regulating moods, arousal and feelings of happiness and anxiety.
Low levels of serotonin are associated with several psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Researchers believe that BuSpar and its generic equivalent buspirone might reduce anxiety by increasing serotonin levels and activity in parts of the brain related to fear and anxiety, such as the amygdala.
Like many other medications, buspirone wasn’t originally developed as a treatment for anxiety disorders. Instead, it was developed throughout the 1960s and 70s as a form of medication for psychosis.
During research, it proved more effective as an anxiolytic drug than as an antipsychotic, and its limited side effect profile made it a popular alternative to other medications for anxiety.
Research shows that buspirone is generally effective as a treatment for anxiety disorders. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers found that people affected by generalized anxiety disorder reported significant improvements after using buspirone.
After six weeks of treatment, the people given buspirone displayed reductions in the symptoms of both anxiety and depression using the respective Hamilton Rating Scales.
A separate study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology found that buspirone produced similar results to the popular anti-anxiety medication lorazepam (sold as Ativan®), all with fewer side effects and no risk of rebound anxiety or withdrawal symptoms.
Buspirone is available as an oral tablet. It comes in several doses, including 5mg, 7.5mg, 10mg, 15mg and 30mg per tablet. It’s usually taken twice daily and needs to be used always with food or always without food, as food may affect its absorption and metabolism.
For generalized anxiety disorder, the recommended starting dose of buspirone is typically 15mg per day, either in the form of two 7.5mg tablets or three 5mg tablets. The maximum daily dose of buspirone is 60mg.
Your mental health provider may instruct you to gradually increase your dosage of buspirone in small increments until the correct dose is reached. Most research shows that a buspirone dose of 20mg to 30mg per day is effective for the management of anxiety disorders.
If you’re prescribed buspirone, follow the instructions below to use your medication safely and effectively:
Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Your healthcare provider may provide specific instructions, such as times to take buspirone during the day or instructions about food intake. Make sure to closely follow any instructions from your healthcare provider.
Inform your healthcare provider about other medications. Buspirone can potentially interact with other medications, including some prescription medications for depression and anxiety.
Before using buspirone, make sure to tell your healthcare provider about all medications and supplements you currently use or have recently used.
Use buspirone for two to four weeks before judging its effects. Buspirone takes two to four weeks to start working properly as an anti-anxiety medication. Make sure to use buspirone consistently, even if you don’t notice immediate improvements.
Avoid consuming alcohol while you use buspirone. Alcohol can worsen the sedative effects of many anxiety medications, including buspirone. Avoid drinking alcohol while you’re using buspirone to treat anxiety or any other condition.
Don’t adjust your dose or abruptly stop using buspirone. Although buspirone is not associated with physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms, it’s important not to stop using it abruptly.
If you want to stop using buspirone, talk to your healthcare provider. They may suggest adjusting your dosage or switching to a different type of anxiety medication.
Although buspirone is often viewed as less likely to cause side effects than other medications for anxiety, it can still cause side effects.
The most common side effect of buspirone is dizziness, which affects more than 10 percent of people prescribed this medication. Other common side effects of buspirone include:
Paresthesia (a “pins and needles” sensation)
Ataxia (lack of muscle control or coordination)
Musculoskeletal pain and/or weakness
Irritation and outbursts of anger
Tinnitus (ringing or other noises in the ears)
Diaphoresis (excessive, abnormal sweating)
In some cases, buspirone can cause elevated levels of liver enzymes. It’s important to contact your healthcare provider if you experience any severe or persistent adverse effects while you’re using buspirone.
Buspirone is a safe and effective medication for most people. In fact, when compared to other medications used to treat anxiety, buspirone is generally considered to have a limited potential for abuse and low level of toxicity.
However, like other medications, buspirone may interact with other drugs and potentially cause severe or dangerous symptoms.
Buspirone can interact with other medications, supplements and ingredients, including several common foods. For example, grapefruit and grapefruit juice can increase levels of buspirone in the body by affecting its metabolism.
Like other medications that affect serotonin levels, buspirone may increase the risk of serotonin syndrome when it’s used with certain antidepressants.
To avoid interactions, make sure to inform your mental health provider about all medications you currently use or have recently used before starting treatment with buspirone or any other anxiety medication.
It’s particularly important to inform your provider if you’ve taken a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) at any point in the last 14 days, as these medications may contribute to high serotonin levels or elevated blood pressure when used with buspirone.
Currently, there have been no reported deaths from an overdose of buspirone alone. Research involving buspirone dosages of up to 375mg per day (approximately 12 times the dosage of the strongest buspirone tablet) resulted in nausea, vomiting, dizziness and gastric side effects.
If you are prescribed buspirone, closely follow the dosage instructions given by your healthcare provider. Do not exceed the prescribed dosage of buspirone.
Women prescribed buspirone should tell their healthcare provider if they are pregnant or plan to become pregnant in the near future. Research suggests that small quantities of buspirone may pass into breast milk.
Although it’s no longer available as BuSpar, buspirone is still widely used to treat issues such as generalized anxiety disorder, especially when other medications cause side effects or aren’t fully effective.
You can learn more about buspirone and related psychiatry medications in our guide to the most common mental health medications.
If you think you could have an anxiety disorder, you can get expert help and find out more about your options by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or via our mental health services.
We offer a range of online services, including psychiatric evaluation and individual therapy with a licensed provider. If appropriate, you'll receive a personalized treatment plan that may include psychiatric medication.