Saturday, March 25, 2017
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Sertraline (Zoloft)

zoloftZoloft is available by prescription in the United States.

Addictive Potential: Low more…

Emergency Room Visits Yearly: Unknown

Mandatory Minimum Sentence: Not Scheduled, Does Not Apply; Legal by Prescription

Mechanism of Action: Increases the Neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine


Sertraline hydrochloride (also labeled under numerous brand names: Zoloft, Sertralin, Lustral, Apo-Sertral, Asentra, Gladem, Serlift, Stimuloton, Xydep, Serlain, Concorz) is a popular orally administered antidepressant of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) type. It was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1991.

Side Effects and Adverse Reactions:

According to Pfizer, sertraline is contraindicated in individuals taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors or the antipsychotic pimozide (Orap). Sertraline concentrate contains alcohol, and is therefore contraindicated with disulfiram (Antabuse). The prescribing information recommends that treatment of the elderly and patients with liver impairment “must be approached with caution”. Due to the slower elimination of sertraline in these groups, their exposure to sertraline may be as high as three times the average exposure for the same dose.

Among the common adverse effects associated with sertraline and listed in the prescribing information, those with the greatest difference from placebo are nausea (25% vs. 11% for placebo), ejaculation failure (14% vs. 1% for placebo), insomnia (21% vs. 11% for placebo), diarrhea (20% vs. 10% for placebo), dry mouth (14% vs. 8% for placebo), somnolence (13% vs. 7% for placebo), dizziness (12% vs. 7% for placebo), tremor (8% vs. 2% for placebo) and decreased libido (6% vs. 1% for placebo). Those that most often resulted in interruption of the treatment were nausea (3%), diarrhea (2%) and insomnia (2%). Sertraline appears to be associated with microscopic colitis, a rare condition of unknown etiology.

Akathisia—that is, “inner tension, restlessness, and the inability to stay still”—caused by sertraline was observed in 16% of patients in a case series. This and other reports note that akathisia begins soon after the initiation of treatment or a dose increase; often, several hours after taking the medication. Akathisia usually disappears within several days after sertraline is stopped or its dose is decreased. In some cases, clinicians confused akathisia with anxiety and increased the dose of sertraline, causing further worsening of the patients’ symptoms. Experts note that because of the possible link of akathisia with suicide and the distress it causes to the patient, “it is of vital importance to increase awareness amongst staff and patients of the symptoms of this relatively common condition”.

Over more than six months of sertraline therapy for depression, patients showed an insignificant weight increase of 0.1%. Similarly, a 30-month-long treatment with sertraline for OCD resulted in a mean weight gain of 1.5% (1 kg). Although the difference did not reach statistical significance, the weight gain was lower for fluoxetine (Prozac) (1%) but higher for citalopram (Celexa), fluvoxamine (Luvox) and paroxetine (Paxil) (2.5%). Only 4.5% of the sertraline group gained a large amount of weight (defined as more than 7% gain). This result compares favorably with placebo, where, according to the literature, 3–6% of patients gained more than 7% of their initial weight. The large weight gain was observed only among female members of the sertraline group; the significance of this finding is unclear because of the small size of the group.

Over a two-week treatment of healthy volunteers, sertraline slightly improved verbal fluency but did not affect word learning, short-term memory, vigilance, flicker fusion time, choice reaction time, memory span, or psychomotor coordination. In spite of lower subjective rating, that is, feeling that they performed worse, no clinically relevant differences were observed in the objective cognitive performance in a group of people treated for depression with sertraline for 1.5 year as compared to healthy controls. In children and adolescents taking sertraline for six weeks for anxiety disorders, 18 out of 20 measures of memory, attention and alertness stayed unchanged. Divided attention was improved and verbal memory under interference conditions decreased marginally. Because of the large number of measures taken, it is possible that these changes were still due to chance.

Birth defects and effects on breast-fed infants

The studies comparing the levels of sertraline and its principal metabolite, desmethylsertraline, in mother’s blood to their concentration in umbilical cord blood at the time of delivery indicated that fetal exposure to sertraline and its metabolite is approximately a third of the maternal exposure. The use of sertraline during the first trimester of pregnancy was associated with increased odds of the following birth defects: omphalocele (six-fold), anal atresia and limb reduction defects (four-fold), and septal defects (two-fold). Concentration of sertraline and desmethylsertraline in breast milk is highly variable and, on average, is of the same order of magnitude as their concentration in the blood plasma of the mother. As a result, more than half of breast-fed babies receive less than 2 mg/day of sertraline and desmethylsertraline combined, and in most cases these substances are undetectable in their blood. No changes in serotonin uptake by the platelets of breast-fed infants were found, as measured by their blood serotonin levels before and after their mothers began sertraline treatment.

Sexual side effects

Like other SSRIs, sertraline is associated with sexual side effects, including arousal disorder and difficulty achieving orgasm. The observed frequency of sexual side effects depends greatly on whether they are reported by patients spontaneously, as in the manufacturer’s trials, or actively solicited by the physicians. There have been several double-blind studies of sexual side effects comparing sertraline with placebo or other antidepressants. While nefazodone (Serzone) and bupropion did not have negative effects on sexual functioning, 67% of men on sertraline experienced ejaculation difficulties vs. 18% before the treatment (or 61% vs. 0% according to another paper). Similarly, in a group of women who initially did not have difficulties achieving orgasm, 41% acquired this problem during treatment with sertraline. A 40% rate of orgasm dysfunction (vs. 9% for placebo) on sertraline was observed in a mixed group in another study. Sexual arousal disorder, defined as “inadequate lubrication and swelling for women and erectile difficulties for men,” occurred in 12% of patients on sertraline as compared with 1% of patients on placebo. The mood improvement resulting from the treatment with sertraline counteracted these side effects, so that sexual desire and overall satisfaction with sex stayed the same as before the sertraline treatment. However, under the action of placebo the desire and satisfaction slightly improved.


The FDA requires all antidepressants, including sertraline, to carry a black box warning stating that antidepressants may increase the risk of suicide in persons younger than 25. This warning is based on statistical analyses conducted by two independent groups of FDA experts that found a 2-fold increase of suicidal ideation and behavior in children and adolescents, and a 1.5-fold increase of suicidality in the 18–24 age group.

Suicidal ideation and behavior in clinical trials are rare. For the above analysis, the FDA combined the results of 295 trials of 11 antidepressants for psychiatric indications in order to obtain statistically significant results. Considered separately, sertraline use in adults decreased the odds of suicidality with a marginal statistical significance by 37% or 50% depending on the statistical technique used. The authors of the FDA analysis note that “given the large number of comparisons made in this review, chance is a very plausible explanation for this difference”. The more complete data submitted later by the sertraline manufacturer Pfizer indicated increased suicidality. Similarly, the analysis conducted by the UK MHRA found a 50% increase of odds of suicide-related events, not reaching statistical significance, in the patients on sertraline as compared to the ones on placebo.

SSRI discontinuation syndrome

Abrupt interruption of sertraline treatment may result in withdrawal or discontinuation syndrome. This syndrome occurred in 60% of the remitted depressed patients taking sertraline in a blind discontinuation study, as compared to 14% of patients on fluoxetine and 66% of patients on paroxetine. During the 5–8-day period when sertraline was temporarily replaced by placebo, the most frequent symptoms (reported by more than a quarter of patients) were irritability, agitation, dizziness, headache, nervousness, crying, emotional lability, bad dreams and anger. Around a third experienced mood worsening to the level generally associated with a major depressive episode. In a double-blind study of remitted panic disorder patients, abrupt discontinuation of sertraline treatment resulted in insomnia and dizziness (both 16–17% vs. 4% for continuing treatment), although headache, depression and malaise did not increase significantly. In another double-blind study of recovered panic disorder patients, the withdrawal syndrome was completely avoided when sertraline was gradually discontinued over three weeks, while patients stopping paroxetine treatment still suffered from it.


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