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Smart Moms: Exercise Caution in Using Zoloft


Many physical, social, and chemical changes happen to a woman both before and after her pregnancy.  These changes can lead to women suffering from a number of symptoms including depression.  In fact, it has been said that one out of every five women has symptoms of depression during their pregnancy.

Naturally, women seek help to battle these illnesses and often resort to medicine to prevent adverse effects to themselves and their child.  However, using medications containing sertraline hydrochloride, such as Zoloft, to combat depression can lead to serious issues for a developing child.

Zoloft was approved by the FDA in 1991 and is currently manufactured by Pfizer, Inc.  Zoloft is in a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and works by increasing the amounts of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that helps maintain mental balance.  Zoloft has proven to be a large source of revenue for Pfizer and in 2010, brought in $532 million in revenue, a 3% increase in sales from 2009; nearly a billion dollars in sales in just two years.

Zoloft has been used to treat illnesses such as:

  • depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (bothersome thoughts that won’t go away and the need to perform certain actions over and over)
  • panic attacks, (sudden, unexpected attacks of extreme fear and worry about these attacks)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (psychological symptoms that develop after a frightening experience)
  • social anxiety disorder (extreme fear of interacting with others or performing in front of others that interferes with normal life)

Research has demonstrated that Zoloft can cause adverse effects in babies that include: heart problems, low birth weight, and high blood pressure in the arteries that supply blood to the lungs (pulmonary hypertension).  These side effects have been so serious that the FDA has released warnings of Zoloft’s danger like this one posted in July 2006:

“The results of a study that looked at the use of antidepressant medicines during pregnancy in mothers of babies born with a serious condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN) was recently published in a medical journal. Babies born with PPHN have abnormal blood flow through the heart and lungs and do not get enough oxygen to their bodies.  Babies with PPHN can be very sick and may die.  The study results showed that babies born to mothers who took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the family of medicines Zoloft® belongs to, 20 weeks or later in their pregnancies had a higher chance (were 6 times as likely) to have PPHN than babies born to mothers who did not take antidepressants during pregnancy (6-12 per 1000 births versus 1-2 per 1000 births). The FDA plans to further look at the role of SSRIs in babies with PPHN.”

Additionally, doctors such as Peter R. Breggin, MD, who published a study on the topic, concluded:

“Pregnant mothers should avoid taking SSRI antidepressants—they are hazardous to the developing fetus, cause withdrawal symptoms in the newborn baby, and induce biochemical and morphological abnormalities in the brain. If pregnant mothers need help with sad or anxious feelings, they should seek counseling or psychotherapy, especially family therapy involving the child’s father, as well as other sources of emotional support.”

As Dr. Breggin has recommended, depression can be treated in several ways. Support groups may help.  But most importantly, if you know a woman that is taking an antidepressant and wants to get pregnant, make sure that she talks to her health care provider beforehand. Together, they will decide whether she should keep taking the medication, change the medication, gradually reduce the dose, or stop taking it all together.

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