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How Antidepressants Work

Most antidepressants work by changing the balance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. In people with depression, the cells in the brain do not have access to the correct amount of these chemical messengers. Antidepressants make the chemicals more available to brain cells.

Antidepressants can be prescribed by any doctor, but people with severe symptoms are often referred to a psychiatrist.

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Realistic Expectations

In general, antidepressants work well, especially when used along with psychotherapy. (The combination is thought to be slightly more effective than either type of treatment alone.) Most people on antidepressants report eventual improvements in symptoms such as sadness, loss of interest, and hopelessness.

But these drugs do not work right away. It may take 1 to 3 weeks before you start to feel better and even longer before you feel the full benefit. It's not common, but some people don't improve with antidepressants and need to try other treatments with their doctor.

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Do You Need to Switch?

If your symptoms don't improve after 4 to 6 weeks, tell your doctor. You may need a higher dose or a different medicine. 

Some people do not respond to the first antidepressant they try. Most of those people do respond to a different medicine. Remember, it can take up to 3 months to feel the full benefit of an antidepressant.

Also, antidepressants may stop working in a small number of people who have been taking them for a while.


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Brand Name vs. Generic

According to the FDA, there is no difference in the strength, safety, or quality of generic vs. brand-name drugs.

But one study did suggest that there may be slight variations in how well generics are absorbed and used by the body. If you switched to a generic and it doesn't seem to be working, tell your doctor.

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Antidepressant Success

A successful course of treatment usually lasts several months to a year. Don't quit, even if you feel better sooner. If you do, it's possible your depression will come back.

Your doctor can help you develop a convenient routine for staying on your medication -- for example, taking your pills with breakfast every day.

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Coping With Side Effects

Don't be shy in telling your doctor about side effects. There are often ways to manage them. Here are some examples, but check with your doctor first to see if these are right for you. Taking your antidepressant with food can help nausea. If you're having sexual problems, changing antidepressants may help.

If you feel fatigued, try taking your medicine 1 to 2 hours before bedtime. If the antidepressant causes insomnia, take it in the morning. Many side effects diminish on their own after a few weeks.

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Drug Interactions

Antidepressants used most often today have fewer side effects and drug interactions than older types of antidepressants. Still, any antidepressant can interact with other medications, and even with herbal or dietary supplements. Drug interactions can lead to more severe side effects and reduce how well your medicine works. 

Let your doctor know about any new prescription drug, over-the-counter medicine, or dietary supplement you plan to take.

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Follow-Up Care

It is vital to continue follow-up care while you are on antidepressants.

Relapses are common. Your doctor may advise changing the dose -- or trying a new medication -- if your symptoms return.

Be sure to tell your doctor of major changes in your life, such as losing a job, developing another medical condition, or becoming pregnant.

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Antidepressant Myths

Some people worry that antidepressants will leave them robotic. The fact is, antidepressants help relieve feelings of sadness, but they do not eliminate your emotions.

Another myth is that you'll need to take the drugs for life. A typical course of antidepressants lasts 6 to 12 months. Antidepressants are not physically addictive but should not be stopped abruptly.

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Benefits of Psychotherapy

Getting psychotherapy while you take antidepressants can be a more effective way to treat depression, studies show.

Types of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing negative thoughts and behaviors, and interpersonal therapy, which focuses on your relationships with others.

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Depression and Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins, chemicals linked to improved mood and lower rates of depression.

Several studies suggest regular exercise, without medicine, is an effective treatment for mild depression. Exercise can also help your medicine work better. Group sessions or exercising with a partner may be particularly helpful.

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Coming Off Your Antidepressant

Your doctor will help you determine the right time to stop your antidepressants. Quitting abruptly can cause unwanted side effects or even a relapse.

With many antidepressants, it's best to gradually reduce your dose according to your doctor's guidance.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 03/22/2018 Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 22, 2018

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Medline Plus: "Antidepressants."
Mayo Clinic: "Antidepressants (major depressive disorder)."
Royal College of Psychiatrists: "Antidepressants: key facts."
PDR Health: "Top 10 Things to Know About Antidepressants."
Harvard Health Publications: "What are the real risks of antidepressants."

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 22, 2018

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.