Tricyclic Antidepressants for Postpartum Depression

Examples

Generic Name Brand Name
amitriptyline Elavil
imipramine Tofranil
nortriptyline Aventyl, Pamelor

How It Works

Tricyclic antidepressants balance certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are linked to depression. When these brain chemicals are in proper balance, the symptoms of depression may be relieved.

Why It Is Used

Tricyclics are an older class of antidepressant that has been well studied for postpartum depression treatment. Nortriptyline and imipramine are passed on to breast-feeding infants at very low levels.

Doxepin (Silenor, Zonalon) is not considered safe while breast-feeding.

Tricyclics may cause bothersome side effects. This is why tricyclics are usually tried only when treatment with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) hasn't worked well. But if you have done well with a tricyclic in the past, talk to your doctor about using it for postpartum depression.

How Well It Works

Tricyclics are as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft) at relieving symptoms of depression. But the side effects can be worse.

You may start to feel better in 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. If you have questions or concerns about your medicines or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your doctor.

Side Effects

TCAs are started at low doses, and the dose is increased gradually to reduce the severity of side effects. You may need regular blood tests to check the amount of the medicine in your blood. Too much of this type of medicine in the bloodstream can be dangerous.

People who have seizures (epilepsy), difficulty urinating (urinary retention), glaucoma (an eye disease), or heart conditions may notice that tricyclic antidepressants make these symptoms worse.

Be sure to tell your doctor about all the medicines you are currently taking. TCAs can interact poorly with certain heart medicines, such as digoxin (for example, Lanoxin). TCAs can also interact poorly with other medicines, such as those used to treat seizures. Phenytoin (Dilantin) is one example.

All medicines have side effects. But many people don't feel the side effects, or they are able to deal with them. Ask your pharmacist about the side effects of each medicine you take. Side effects are also listed in the information that comes with your medicine.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Usually the benefits of the medicine are more important than any minor side effects.
  • Side effects may go away after you take the medicine for a while.
  • If side effects still bother you and you wonder if you should keep taking the medicine, call your doctor. He or she may be able to lower your dose or change your medicine. Do not suddenly quit taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have:

  • Trouble breathing.
  • Swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Hives.
  • Thoughts of suicide.
  • Agitation and restlessness.
  • Seizures.
  • Fast heartbeat.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Common side effects of this medicine include:

  • Dry mouth.
  • Dizziness.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Headache.
  • Weight gain.
  • Constipation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. Talk to your doctor about these possible side effects and the warning signs of suicide.

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

Never suddenly stop taking TCAs. The use of any antidepressant should be tapered off slowly and only under the supervision of a doctor. Abruptly stopping antidepressant medicines can cause negative side effects or a relapse of your condition.

Taking medicine

Medicine is one of the many tools your doctor has to treat a health problem. Taking medicine as your doctor suggests will improve your health and may prevent future problems. If you don't take your medicines properly, you may be putting your health (and perhaps your life) at risk.

There are many reasons why people have trouble taking their medicine. But in most cases, there is something you can do. For suggestions on how to work around common problems, see the topic Taking Medicines as Prescribed.

Advice for women

If you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant, do not use any medicines unless your doctor tells you to. Some medicines can harm your baby. This includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. And make sure that all your doctors know that you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or planning to get pregnant.

Checkups

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Patrice Burgess, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Lisa S. Weinstock, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised May 14, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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