Expert reviewers, Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist and Dr Jo Byfleet, Bupa Clinics GP and Physician in Charge
Next review due October 2023

Antidepressants are a type of medicine used to treat depression and, sometimes, other health problems. There are different types of antidepressant medicine – your doctor will recommend the one that’s best for you in your particular circumstances.

It can take a few weeks for you to notice any change in your symptoms after starting an antidepressant. All antidepressants can have side-effects, but for many people these are mild and get better over time.

A packet of antidepressants

When are antidepressants used?

Antidepressants are mainly used to treat depression, often alongside talking therapies. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants if you’re very unwell with moderate or severe depression and your symptoms make your daily life difficult.

If your depression is mild, antidepressants may not be the best treatment for you. But if you’ve had mild depression for at least two years or you’ve previously had more severe depression, antidepressants may be an option. If you’ve had depression which has come back in the past, your doctor may suggest you take antidepressants to help prevent you becoming ill again.

Antidepressants may be used as a treatment for other conditions affecting your mental health. These conditions include:

Sometimes, particular antidepressants are used for other reasons including:

  • long-term pain
  • symptoms of the menopause, especially hot flushes
  • bedwetting in children
  • urinary stress incontinence
  • to help you stop smoking

Your doctor will talk you through your treatment options if antidepressants are a suitable treatment for you.

There are several different antidepressants. They usually take some time to work and need to be taken regularly to see if they’ll work for you. If you get worrying side-effects or the medicine doesn’t work for you, your doctor may offer you a different one. There are many options, so don’t lose hope.

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How do antidepressants work to treat depression?

Doctors don’t yet fully understand how antidepressants work. What they do know is that antidepressants increase the amount of chemicals called neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitters transmit messages between the cells in your brain and are thought to help in regulating your mood. Different antidepressant medicines raise levels of neurotransmitters in different ways. It usually takes between 10 and 20 days for antidepressants to start working and reduce symptoms of depression.

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What are the different types of antidepressant?

There are different types of antidepressant, which include:

  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as citalopram, fluoxetine and sertraline; these are the most common type of antidepressant used for depression
  • serotonin–noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as duloxetine and venlafaxine
  • tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) such as clomipramine and imipramine
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) such as tranylcypromine and phenelzine

There are some other types of antidepressant that fall outside of these categories. These include mirtazapine and vortioxetine.

The different types of antidepressant all work equally well for treating depression. If your doctor recommends you take an antidepressant, they’ll probably prescribe an SSRI first. This is because SSRIs are generally safer and their side-effects are tolerated better than other types of antidepressant. For more information on this, see our section on side-effects below.

Your doctor will talk you through which medicine is the best option for you. This may depend on your symptoms, what worked for you before, other medicines you take, other medical conditions you have and your own preferences.

Ask your doctor to explain the risks and benefits of any medicines they recommend, so that you feel fully informed when starting your treatment. Your doctor may recommend that you combine two antidepressants or take other medication as well as your antidepressant. You may need to try different medicines before you find one that works for you.

Taking antidepressants

If your doctor prescribes you an antidepressant, they’ll want to see you again within a couple of weeks to see if it’s working for you. After that, you’ll probably need to go back each month for three months.

Some people find that their symptoms start to improve a few days after starting antidepressants but it often takes two to four weeks. That’s why it’s important to keep taking your medicine, even if you don’t feel better straight away.

Once you’ve found an antidepressant that works for you, you’ll probably need to keep taking it for at least six months after your symptoms have gone away. This will help prevent your depression from coming back. Your symptoms might come back when you stop taking your medication, so always follow your doctor’s advice. If you’ve had depression that has come back in the past, you may need to continue taking your antidepressants for longer – for at least two years.

You do not become addicted to antidepressants. Unlike addictive drugs, you won’t need increasing amounts to get the same effect, and you won’t crave them. But you can get some unpleasant symptoms if you stop taking them too quickly. For more information about stopping antidepressants, see our section on side-effects below.

It’s very important that you read the patient information that comes with your medicine. And if you have any questions about taking your medicine, you can ask your pharmacist.

Driving and antidepressants

Some antidepressants can make you sleepy and affect your ability to drive safely. This is most likely to be a problem in the first month after starting your treatment or if your dose is increased. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) states that you should not drive if your medication affects your level of alertness or your ability to concentrate. Talk to your doctor about whether your medicine could affect your driving. Remember that it is always your responsibility to ensure that you’re safe to drive if you get behind the wheel.

Do antidepressants interact with other medicines?

Antidepressants can interact with other medicines, so tell your doctor about any other medicines that you’re taking. This includes any over-the-counter or complementary medicines. The patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine will give you details of any important interactions. Read this leaflet carefully as soon as you get your medicine and if you have any questions or concerns, you can ask your pharmacist for advice.

Can I drink alcohol while taking antidepressants

It’s best to avoid alcohol while you’re taking antidepressants. This is because:

  • alcohol is itself a depressant, and can lower your mood
  • alcohol and antidepressants together can make you very sleepy
  • some antidepressants can increase the effects of drinking alcohol

If you’re taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) antidepressant, you shouldn’t drink alcohol at all. There are also some other restrictions on your diet with MAOIs – you can get more information from the patient leaflet that comes with your medicine or ask your pharmacist.

What are the side-effects of antidepressants?

Like all medicines, antidepressants can cause side-effects. These are the unwanted effects you may get after taking your medicine. Side-effects are most likely to happen when you first start treatment with an antidepressant. For most people, the side-effects are mild and improve after a few weeks. It’s important to keep taking your medicine if you can.

Some antidepressants have fewer side-effects than others. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) have fewer side-effects than tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidise inhibitors (MAOIs).

The most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant is an SSRI. This is because the side-effects of SSRIs are more tolerable than those of other types of antidepressant.

The side-effects of SSRIs may include:

  • feeling sick
  • being sick (vomiting)
  • tummy pain
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • feeling dizzy
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling agitated
  • having trouble sleeping
  • a low sex drive

It’s thought that young people may be slightly more likely to have suicidal thoughts when taking SSRI antidepressants. Children and young people will only be offered these medicines after careful assessment by a psychiatrist, and will be monitored closely.

You can ask your doctor about the side-effects of other types of antidepressant. And there will be details about possible side-effects in the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

It’s normal to experience some side-effects from taking antidepressants. But if you’re concerned about any side-effects you may be having from the antidepressant you’re taking, talk to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe another type of antidepressant to see if it suits you better.

Side-effects when stopping antidepressants

If you take antidepressants for more than about six to eight weeks and then stop, you may get what are called ‘discontinuation symptoms’. These include:

  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • problems sleeping, including vivid dreams and insomnia
  • restlessness
  • altered sensations such as ‘electric shock’ sensations in your head
  • altered feelings such as anxiety, irritability and confusion

Not everyone gets these, but they’re more likely to happen if you stop taking your medicines suddenly or miss doses. So, if you’d like to stop taking your antidepressants, talk to your doctor first. They may help you reduce your dose slowly, over a period of weeks, to prevent these side-effects.

Medicines checklist

Our handy medicines checklist helps you see what to check for before taking a medicine.

Bupa's medicines checklist PDF opens in a new window (0.8MB)

Bupa medicines checklist

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Related information

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    • Psychiatric disorders: assessing fitness to drive. Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency., last updated March 2020
    • Personal communication, Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist, October 2020
  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, October 2020
    Expert reviewers, Dr Rahul Bhattacharya, Consultant Psychiatrist and Dr Jo Byfleet, Bupa Clinics GP and Physician in Charge
    Next review due October 2023