Antidepressants are medications commonly used to treat depression. They may also be prescribed to treat other health conditions, such as anxiety, pain and insomnia. 

Antidepressant may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress.

Types of Antidepressants

There are several types of antidepressants

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). These are the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant. Examples of SSRIs include:
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI). SNRIs are similar to SSRIs and include venlafaxine and duloxetine. 
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCA), including amitriptyline.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI)

There are other antidepressants that don’t fall into any of these categories and are considered unique, such as Mirtazapine and Bupropion. Bupropion is also used to treat seasonal affective disorder and to help people stop smoking.

SSRIs, SNRIs, and bupropion are commonly prescribed because they do not cause as many side effects as older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclicss and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). However, these older medications are still used because some people respond better to them.

You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has side effects that you can manage.

Taking an Antidepressant

People taking antidepressants need to follow their doctor’s directions. The medication should be taken in the right dose for the right amount of time. It can take 3 or 4 weeks until the medicine takes effect. Some people take the medications for a short time, and some people take them for much longer periods. People with long-term or severe depression may need to take medication for a long time.

Once a person is taking antidepressants, it is important not to stop taking them without the help of a doctor.

Sometimes people taking antidepressants feel better and stop taking the medication too soon, and the depression may return.

When it is time to stop the medication, the doctor will help the person slowly and safely decrease the dose. It’s important to give the body time to adjust to the change. People don’t get addicted, or “hooked,” on the medications, but stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms. If a medication does not work, it may be helpful to be open to trying another one.

Side Effects of Antidepressants

Some antidepressants may cause more side effects than others. You may need to try several different antidepressant medications before finding the one that improves your symptoms and that causes side effects that you can manage.

The most common side effects listed by the FDA include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Sleepiness
  • Sexual problems

Call your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms, especially if they are new, worsening, or worry you(U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2011):

  • Thoughts about suicide or dying
  • Attempts to commit suicide
  • New or worsening depression
  • New or worsening anxiety
  • Feeling very agitated or restless
  • Panic attacks
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • New or worsening irritability
  • Acting aggressively, being angry, or violent
  • Acting on dangerous impulses
  • An extreme increase in activity and talking (mania)
  • Other unusual changes in behavior or mood

Combining the newer SSRI or SNRI antidepressants with one of the commonly-used "triptan" medications used to treat migraine headaches could cause a life-threatening illness called "serotonin syndrome." A person with serotonin syndrome may be agitated, have hallucinations (see or hear things that are not real), have a high temperature, or have unusual blood pressure changes. Serotonin syndrome is usually associated with the older antidepressants called MAOIs, but it can happen with the newer antidepressants as well, if they are mixed with the wrong medications. For more information, please see the FDA Medication Guide on Antidepressant Medicines

Your doctor may have you see a talk therapist in addition to taking medicine. Ask your doctor about the benefits and risks of adding talk therapy to your treatment. Sometimes talk therapy alone may be the best treatment for you.

If you are having suicidal thoughts or other serious side effects like seizures or heart problems while taking antidepressant medicines, contact your doctor immediately.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Reference: National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Last updated May 2017

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This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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