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Medicines for depression: 5 common questions

Open pill bottle with blue and white capsule pills spilling out.

Many medicines are available to help treat depression. Learn how they—and other treatments—can help you feel like yourself again.

If your healthcare provider suggests taking an antidepressant medicine, you may have questions—and there's nothing wrong with that. After all, the more you know about your medicines, the likelier you may be to use them in a way that's safe and effective.

Your doctor is a great resource to turn to for answers. But in the meantime, here's what you should know about a few of the questions that might be on your mind:

How will my doctor decide which antidepressant to prescribe?

Several types of antidepressants are available, and they work by regulating certain brain chemicals that affect your mood, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

Based on your symptoms, health history, age and other medications, your doctor will recommend a medicine to start with. But keep in mind: Some people respond better to one antidepressant than they do to another. And it's not always possible to predict which one will work best. It might take some time to figure out what's right for you, but it's worth the wait.

When will my medicine start working?

Antidepressants take time to build up in your system. Some people might begin to feel better as soon as one week after starting their medicine. But you may not feel the full effects until 8 to 12 weeks later. So it's important to give your medicine time to kick in.

If you take your medicine for several weeks and you don't think it's helping, let your doctor know. They may change the dose of your medicine—or suggest adding or switching to a different antidepressant.

What about side effects?

All medicines can have side effects, and antidepressants are no exception. Ask your doctor what problems to watch for—and what to do if you notice any of them. The good news is that side effects often ease up after a few weeks. If your antidepressant causes too many side effects or ones you can't live with, such as worsening depression, your doctor may be able to suggest a medicine that causes fewer problems.

Common side effects of antidepressants include:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Weight gain.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Sexual problems.

But antidepressants can also have more serious risks, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Reach out to your doctor if you have panic attacks or experience angry or aggressive behaviors. And call your doctor or 911 right away if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others.

How long will I need to take it for?

Some people only need antidepressants for a short time. Others may need to take them indefinitely. But in either case, don't stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor first—even if you feel better.

If you stop taking your medicine too early, your depression could return. Stopping suddenly could also cause unpleasant side effects.

Antidepressants are not habit-forming, so you can't get addicted to them. But if you quit all at once—as opposed to gradually cutting back with your doctor's help—you could have withdrawal symptoms. For instance, you could feel anxious or angry.

What other treatments might help?

For many people with moderate to severe depression, combining medicines with talk therapy is often the approach that works best. Your doctor can help you find a mental health provider if needed.

In addition, focusing on healthy habits may provide a mood lift. That includes being active, getting enough rest, following a healthy diet, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Be sure to keep following your medication and therapy schedule even when you feel your best.

The most important thing to keep in mind is this: You don't have to live with depression. Talk with your doctor about a treatment plan that's right for you.

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reviewed 8/30/2019

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