SSRI antidepressants belong to a particular class of drugs used to treat depression and sometimes other mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. These medications have helped countless people to feel better and to be able to function during bouts of depression and anxiety. They have also harmed people, though, and taking an SSRI does not come without some serious potential risks.
SSRI antidepressant side effects range from common and mild symptoms like nausea or insomnia to very serious complications like birth defects and suicide. Each patient and doctor must decide together if the risks are outweighed by the benefits of using an SSRI. To do so they need all the information. That has not always been available, which has led to controversies and lawsuits against the drug makers.
What Are SSRIs?
SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and it refers to the general mechanism of action for this class of antidepressants. SSRIs are the most common type that is prescribed to people with depression or certain anxiety disorders. The names of generic SSRI medications on the market are fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, paroxetine, escitalopram, and citalopram. The brand names of these drugs in the same order are Prozac, Luvox, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro, and Celexa.
These medications work to treat depression by acting on neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain. Serotonin is one of these and it seems to be involved in mood, although it is a complicated network of chemicals and how exactly it works is not fully understood. What SSRIs do is block the uptake of serotonin by neurons in the brain so that levels stay higher than normal. This has the effect of elevating mood in most people.
Common Side Effects
SSRI antidepressant side effects are common, but typically less than what is experienced with other types of antidepressants. They are safer and more effective for more people, which explains why they are the most prescribed and most popular with patients. All SSRIs work in the brain in a similar way and so cause similar side effects. Some of the most common of these are nausea, insomnia, agitation, dizziness, weight changes, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, sexual dysfunction, and dry mouth.
Most of these side effects are not serious and not every patient will experience all of them. It takes time for SSRIs to work in the brain and to change mood, but it also takes time for side effects to diminish. For most people side effects lessen as the brain and body adjusts to the medication. This typically happens within the first few weeks of treatment.
SSRIs also carry the risk that they will cause more severe and even life-threatening side effects. One of the most serious of these is the increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This phenomenon has been found to be possible in children, teens, and adults under the age of 25. For this reason these antidepressants are not indicated for use in children and teens. However, doctors may use discretion in prescribing them to young people if other treatments have failed.
Teens and children who do take SSRIs must be carefully monitored for depression, suicidal thoughts, unusual behaviors, and erratic and unexplained changes in mood or actions. Over the long-term antidepressants decrease the risk of suicide, but while the reasons are unknown, they initially increase that risk in this specific population. Instances of suicide in youngsters taking SSRIs have led to tragic deaths and lawsuits, but the complication is still not common.
Another complication of SSRIs is the possibility of withdrawal. Someone who stops taking one of these medications suddenly may experience something called SSRI withdrawal or discontinuation syndrome. The symptoms of this are similar to withdrawal experienced by someone addicted to drugs: nausea and vomiting, insomnia, nightmares, sweating and hot flashes, tremors, restless legs, poor coordination, numbness or other unusual sensations, and mood swings along with irritability depression, confusion, or anxiety. Some people may even experience suicidal thoughts.
Although rare, serotonin syndrome is a possible SSRI antidepressant side effect. This occurs when the brain is flooded with too much serotonin. It is most likely to occur when a patient takes a second medication or supplement that increases serotonin. Signs of this syndrome include sweating, anxiety, confusion, agitation, restlessness, tremors, and a rapid heartbeat. In addition to antidepressants, supplements like St. John’s wort and some other medications can increase serotonin levels and pose a risk to anyone already taking SSRIs.
The Possibility of Birth Defects
Perhaps most controversial of all and most troubling of all the SSRI antidepressant side effects is the increased risk for birth defects and other complications of childbirth and early childhood development. While there is still some debate over just how severe the risk of birth defects is, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning in 2006 that SSRIs taken during pregnancy may cause a dangerous condition in newborns called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn, or PPHN.
Zoloft, or sertraline, in particular seems to be connected to the development of PPHN in newborns. The condition can be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Not as immediately dangerous, but still harmful is the possibility of birth defects. There is evidence that SSRI antidepressants taken during pregnancy increase the risk of several types of birth defects, including heart defects, brain and skull defects, and cleft lip and palate. Paroxetine, Paxil, may have the highest potential for causing birth defects when a mother takes it during pregnancy.
More recently there has been some evidence to suggest that SSRIs may also increase the risk that a child will eventually be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. In a study published in 2015 researchers found that when SSRIs were taken during pregnancy, the risk of a child having autism increased by 200 percent. Other types of antidepressants were seen to increase that risk by 87 percent. Autism spectrum disorders can lead to years of expensive interventions and schooling and cost families millions of dollars.
If you have taken one of these medications, whether brand name or generic, and experienced any of these serious SSRI antidepressant side effects, you could be in a position to start a lawsuit and seek compensation for your pain and suffering and for medical expenses. Many people have sued the makers of SSRIs and have received settlements. Charges against the drug companies have included that they did not adequately warn patients of the risks of taking their medications, that they marketed drugs that they knew to be dangerous, and that they did not fully test their products for safety.
Some examples of lawsuits include family members of young people who committed suicide while taking Prozac. Some of these families received settlement money from Eli Lilly for this reason. GlaxoSmithKline has also been forced to pay settlements to plaintiffs in cases over Paxil, which many women have claimed caused their babies to be born with defects. Zoloft has also been the center of birth defect lawsuits against maker Pfizer. If you feel the drug companies did not adequately warn you of the risks of taking an SSRI, you too may have a case to make and you may be able to collect settlement compensation.