Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/19/2022
SSRIs are some of the most impressively effective medications developed in the last century — in part because they check all the boxes.
Also known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, SSRIs are a safe and effective group of medications with few known serious side effects, an abundance of research and data proving their effectiveness, and decades of individual testimonials from people whose lives have been improved by what is arguably the best thing to happen to mood disorder treatment since Freud.
If you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, or a number of other mood disorders, there’s a high likelihood that a healthcare professional will prescribe you these medications to support your mental health goals — and there’s a high likelihood that they’ll help you.
But with so many reasons for mental health patients and doctors to laud SSRI drugs, it’s important to learn about the potential risks and side effects that can come from them.
SSRI side effects may never affect you, but their relative rareness is all the more reason to be vigilant.
Most people will agree that you should never take a medication you don’t understand. Well, knowing what side effects of antidepressants to look out for when taking SSRIs is important for your physical and mental health, and an essential part of your treatment.
Read on to learn more about SSRI side effects, and first, a bit on the basics.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) cross the blood brain barrier (a protective shield around your brain that keeps bacteria and viruses out) to affect and manage your brain’s supply of serotonin.
Essentially, serotonin is needed to regulate your moods, but sometimes the human brain has a tendency to reabsorb serotonin, like a vacuum picking up crumbs.
SSRIs basically work by pulling the plug on the vacuum; they help regulate that absorption process to keep a steady supply of serotonin available for when your brain needs it.
Regulating serotonin is an essential part of how we manage and treat depression and anxiety, both of which experts believe are caused in part by imbalances in your serum serotonin levels.
This may include various versions of both disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and other depressive disorder types.
And SSRIs are effective: The medical community considers them a first-line treatment option for depression and a major component of effective anxiety medication, and they are the most commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs today.
In fact, other medications like tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are usually only considered in the individual cases where SSRIs fail.
Over time, the regulation of serotonin allows an anxious or depressed brain to return to normal function. SSRIs aren’t magic pills you can pop for same-day effects (and should never be used that way).
Rather, a steady (and as-recommended) intake of this medication can do wonders for your ability to function if you’ve been hindered by the symptoms of a mood disorder.
Certain SSRIs can also treat alcoholism, eating disorders and certain anxiety disorders.
In other words, SSRIs have non-depressive benefits to your mental health, and healthcare professionals often employ SSRIs to treat these conditions — especially if they’re seen alongside symptoms of depression.
Dosages are one of the main differences among the many types of SSRIs, which include Lexapro and Celexa as well as their generic versions: escitalopram and citalopram.
Side effects of SSRIs tend to have particular patterns. For instance, many manifest in the first weeks of taking the medication and will dissipate as your brain and body get used to the medication.
While SSRIs are considered non-habit forming, there are some unpleasant side effects that occur if you abruptly or suddenly stop taking these medications.
To avoid side effects of withdrawal, it’s important to talk with your healthcare professional before ceasing any course of treatment with all types of antidepressants.
Failing to do so could leave you in a position where you’re unsupported while experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Common side effects of SSRIs you’ll want to watch out for include:
Changes in Sex Drive and Sexual Desire
Other Sexual Side Effects
Weight Loss or Gain
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of these side effects, as they should be monitored in case they worsen or continue to affect your health.
You’ll also want to contact a healthcare provider if you experience severe side effects, which should be addressed immediately.
Serious side effects of SSRIs may include:
Shortness of Breath
Heart Rate Changes
Irregular Heart Beat
Loss of Coordination
Seek immediate medical care if you have any of these.
It’s important to take these side effects in context, because the average person is not likely to be bedridden by stomach pains.
Most SSRIs need to be taken at prescribed intervals and without skipping multiple doses whenever possible, otherwise you might experience some unpleasant antidepressant side effects.
If you suddenly stop taking SSRIs, withdrawal syndrome can set in, causing anxiety and panic, confusion, mild to severe headaches, numbness or tingling sensations, sweating and nausea.
A healthcare professional will slowly and carefully wean you off these medications if you do need to discontinue them. They’ll do this by gradually lowering your dose to make the withdrawal side effects more mild.
The good news is that many SSRI side effects can be avoided by carefully following the instructions of a healthcare professional.
And if you do experience side effects, bringing them to the attention of your prescribing healthcare professional is the only correct first move. You should not discontinue use of these medications without your healthcare provider’s knowledge, regardless of your symptoms.
Having a healthy, open dialogue with a healthcare professional about your mental health and the medications you’re taking isn’t just a good idea; it’s essential to your progress and success.
A healthcare professional can determine when to increase or decrease your dosages in a healthy manner that supports your mental health goals.
They’ll also advise you of other potential treatment options, like therapy, lifestyle changes (including a healthful diet and exercise), and even breathing exercises.
If you’re looking for support today, consider our online psychiatry options which allow you to speak to someone from your own home. You can also reach out to a healthcare provider for insight into treatment options, which may include medication and/or a referral to a mental health professional.
Worrying about side effects from antidepressant medication is no reason to avoid taking SSRIs if one is prescribed. It’s also no reason to delay getting and accepting the support you need to take back control of your health and life.
With the right support and professional supervision, you’ll be on the right track to the mental health you desire.