Medicines for Depression

Updated 
August 31, 2015
Reviewed By: 

Your doctor may suggest you take an antidepressant to help support you through difficult times that come with a breast cancer diagnosis, or to help manage depression that occurs as a result of cancer treatment.  Antidepressants are medicines that can reduce symptoms of depression.

Feeling depressed does not always mean you need to take an antidepressant. These medicines are one tool in your toolbox. Psychotherapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness meditation, and exercise, are other important tools that can also help you manage your mood.

Many different antidepressants are used to manage depression from cancer and its treatment. These medicines work differently and all have potential side effects. Often side effects will lessen over time. If you have questions about the way the antidepressant makes you feel, speak with your doctor.

Which medicines you use depend on many factors, including other medicines you take and your unique needs. Some antidepressants help with sleep, while others boost energy. These medicines can take several weeks to start working, so continue taking them as prescribed, even if you don’t feel better right away.

Here are some antidepressants that may be used to treat depression caused by breast cancer diagnosis and treatment:

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are a standard antidepressantinfo-icon treatment. These medicines work by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical that helps maintain mood.

SSRIs can boost mood and improve your outlook and behavior. They are also given for other conditions, such as anxietyinfo-icon, hot flashes, and post-traumatic stress disorderinfo-icon or PTSDinfo-icon. People with PTSD have severe anxiety, intrusive thoughtsinfo-icon or flashbacks, or nightmares about their experience with breast cancer that persist over time and impair function. PTSD is rare after a breast cancer diagnosisinfo-icon but it can be treated successfully.

SSRIs used to treat depressioninfo-icon include:

Although SSRIs are relatively safe, they can cause some short-term side effects including

  • anxiousness or agitation
  • diarrheainfo-icon or constipation
  • dizziness
  • dry month
  • headache
  • insomniainfo-icon or drowsiness
  • nauseainfo-icon and vomiting
  • sexual problems
  • weight loss or gain

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

SNRIs work by increasing the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine, a brain chemical that makes you feel alert and energetic. SNRIs also help treat other conditions such as PTSDinfo-icon, hot flashes, chronicinfo-icon nerveinfo-icon pain and neuropathyinfo-icon. They may be used for depressioninfo-icon if SSRIs have not helped you.

SNRIs used to treat depression include

  • desvenlafaxine (Pristiq)
  • duloxetineinfo-icon (Cymbalta)
  • venlafaxine (Effexor)

Side effects are usually short-term. The most common are

  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • increased sweating
  • nauseainfo-icon
  • sexual difficulty

Norepinephrine-Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitors (NDRIs)

These medicines work by increasing the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine, a brain chemical that gives feelings of enjoyment. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is the only medicineinfo-icon in this class. It is used for depressioninfo-icon and other conditions.

Dopamine can stimulate so it’s helpful to treat fatigueinfo-icon related to cancer or its treatment.  It’s also useful to enhance sexual response and to stop smoking. Bupropion can cause anxietyinfo-icon in some people when it’s not used with an SSRIinfo-icon or SNRI.

Common side effects include

  • anxiety
  • blurred vision
  • diarrheainfo-icon or constipation
  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • headache
  • nauseainfo-icon and vomiting
  • increased sweating
  • joint aches
  • sore throat
  • strange taste in the mouth

Antidepressants and Tamoxifeninfo-iconThese medicines may affect the way your body breaks down the hormonal therapyinfo-icon tamoxifen:

If you are taking tamoxifen, discuss these concerns with your doctor.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

These medicines were one of the earliest antidepressants developed. They are prescribed less often because newer antidepressents tend to have fewer side effects. Tricyclic antidepressants improve mood, alertness and energy by making more serotonin and norepinephrine available in the brain. Sometimes they are used to treat neuropathyinfo-icon. They are also used to treat PTSDinfo-icon.

Tricyclic antidepressants include

  • amitriptylineinfo-icon (Elavil)
  • amoxapine
  • desipramine (Norpramin)
  • doxepin (Zonalon, Prudoxin)
  • imipramine (Tofranil)
  • nortriptyline (Pamelor)
  • protriptyline (Vivactil) 
  • trimipramine (Surmontil)

Common side effects include

  • blurred vision
  • constipation
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • inability to empty the bladder
  • increased sweating
  • lightheadedness
  • weight gain caused by increased appetite

Things to Remember

When deciding whether to take an antidepressantinfo-icon, the risks of taking the medicineinfo-icon should be weighed against the benefits. You and your doctor will make this decision together.

Talk with your oncologistinfo-icon before starting medicines that aren’t part of your regular cancer treatment. As with your breast cancer treatments, report any side effects from your medicines. Sometimes one medicine doesn’t work right for you, and your doctor can suggest another.

Always consult your providers before stopping any medicine for anxietyinfo-icon. Stopping quickly without lowering the dosage could be dangerous.

There other antidepressants that may be available to you. Also, your doctor may recommend adding an anti-anxiety medicine or other type of medication, or a second antidepressant.

For more information on specific types and possible side effects of medicines, visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.