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Antidepressants are not addictive and do not produce cravings, but some people suffer antidepressant withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly stop taking these drugs. The most common signs of antidepressant withdrawal include dizziness, fatigue, trouble sleeping and a feeling of anxiousness or irritability. Generally, the risk of a person suffering withdrawal depends on how long he or she has used the medication and may hinge on what type of drug was prescribed.
Signs of antidepressant withdrawal usually appear within three days of stopping the drug or decreasing its use too rapidly. Doctors routinely recommend a tapering off period to wean a patient off these types of medications. When symptoms of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome do appear, they are usually mild and go away in a couple weeks.
In some patients, flu-like symptoms that include headache and nausea may be present. Others might become overly aroused or highly agitated. Some patients also experience trouble with balance, a condition called vertigo. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms are so severe that a patient has to skip work.
Antidepressant withdrawal sometimes occurs when a patient taking drugs for anxiety disorders or depression starts feeling better and stops the drug without consulting his or her physician. Doctors typically suggest weaning off the medicine over a period of six to eight weeks. People often react differently when tapering off antidepressants, and sometimes a doctor will use a substitute drug during the weaning process.
Diagnosing antidepressant withdrawal can be difficult because the symptoms might be hard to distinguish from a return of the depression itself. If the signs disappear when the drug is resumed, it might signal a relapse of anxiety or depression instead of withdrawal symptoms. In a relapse situation, the patient’s discomfort tends to worsen over time after the drug is stopped.
These types of drugs regulate the way chemicals in the brain are released. Some control neurotransmitters that release serotonin, a brain chemical that is believed to alter mood. Older antidepressants work on three different brain chemicals and are usually prescribed when other drugs fail to improve the patient’s condition. The older drugs may produce more severe antidepressant withdrawal side effects, including psychosis and convulsions in rare cases.
Withdrawal symptoms might also crop up when a patient changes from one antidepressant drug to another. Careful monitoring by a doctor is commonly all that is needed to deal with antidepressant withdrawal, especially if the drugs were used for a short period of time. As the drug is discontinued, the brain might need time to adjust to the change in chemical levels.