Zoloft is also known by the generic name, sertraline. It has been successful in treating symptoms associated with major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and panic attacks.
Zoloft belongs to a classification of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications work within the brain to increase the availability of serotonin. There are many mental health disorders that are associated with low serotonin levels.
When neurons in the brain communicate, they release different neurotransmitters for the next neuron. After that action takes place, the remaining serotonin is reabsorbed through pumps on the original neuron. SSRIs, like Zoloft, prevent the reuptake pumps at the ends of serotonin neurons in the brain from reabsorbing the leftover serotonin.
More serotonin available in the brain means better connections and fewer symptoms of mental health disorders. Appropriate serotonin levels have also been associated with higher energy levels and better sleep.
Generic sertraline and brand name Zoloft are prescription drugs, available as a tablet, liquid, or pill. Usually taken once per day, Zoloft is typically safe and effective when taken correctly. But Zoloft also has a potential for abuse and dependence, which can lead to overdose and withdrawal.
Zoloft is considered safe as a long-term medication, so taking it for years is not usually a problem. However, because Zoloft changes chemicals in the brain (by increasing available serotonin levels), it meets the criteria to be classified as a mind-altering drug.
People can become dependent on mind-altering drugs, whether they are prescription or street drugs. Dependence means if they do not take the substance every day, they feel that they are not the same without it, and are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Cravings are another part of addiction, however, and there have been zero reports of people craving for Zoloft. On the other hand, Zoloft withdrawal does happen. If a person runs out of Zoloft and experiences withdrawal, they can feel compelled to ease those symptoms and seek more Zoloft by whatever means possible.
The compulsion to avoid Zoloft withdrawal may lead a person to buy the drug off other people, or drug dealers. Or, they may find themselves making appointments with multiple doctors to get several prescriptions of Zoloft (called “doctor-shopping). Both of these approaches are illegal.
While cravings are absent, the compulsions to avoid Zoloft withdrawal are present. Addiction disorders are characterized by patterns of withdrawal and relapse that have also been seen in people who misuse Zoloft. The potential of Zoloft use transitioning to what appears to be an addiction may be higher in people with existing substance abuse problems.
Fortunately, substance abuse treatment is available for individuals who abuse prescription drugs.
Zoloft Withdrawal Symptoms
The side effects of stopping an SSRI used to be called withdrawal reactions. However, they are now referred to as SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome. SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome occurs in approximately 27 percent of individuals taking SSRIs. This is an increase of seven percent from 2006.
The effects of Zoloft wear off quickly once a person stops taking it, due to its short half-life, or the time it takes for Zoloft levels to drop below 50 percent in the body. If a person simply quits taking Zoloft, it will quickly result in a decrease of available serotonin and unwanted symptoms can emerge.
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Adjusting to the newly available levels of serotonin can take approximately seven to 21 days, and the intensity of these symptoms will depend largely on how long the person has been taking Zoloft. This is why it is important to take this medication at about the same time every day, and to not stop taking Zoloft without medical guidance.
The biggest concern of individuals who stop taking medications like Zoloft is having rebound depression and anxiety. To some, this can be a crushing blow to their mental health, as they can misinterpret these symptoms as proof that they cannot stop taking the medication without their original symptoms coming back.
Additional symptoms associated with Zoloft withdrawal include:
- flu-like symptoms
- mood swings
- attention problems
- being hyper-aroused
- sensory disturbances
- suicidal thoughts
Medical professionals suggest a process called tapering to help a person stop an SSRI. Tapering allows a gradual reduction of medication over time, to help reduce and eliminate withdrawal symptoms.
Side Effects And Risks Of Zoloft
Many of the side effects of taking Zoloft as prescribed do not last long, however, there are some that warrant immediate medical attention.
Some of the reported side effects of Zoloft are:
- stomach pain
- loss of appetite
- sexual side effects
- dry mouth
According to the guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Zoloft has been issued a “black box warning”. These warnings are attached to prescription drugs that have the potential for dangerous side effects.
Zoloft has been found to evoke or antagonize suicidal thoughts and ideation in younger people and therefore is not approved to be prescribed to children.
Consuming alcohol or drugs while taking Zoloft is strongly discouraged, and while allergic reactions are uncommon, people experiencing hives, trouble breathing, or trouble swallowing should go to the emergency room.
Zoloft has also been found to increase rates of hypertension and neonatal withdrawal in newborns when taken by pregnant women.
Taking too much Zoloft can cause an overdose, usually resulting in a variety of uncomfortable side effects, such as:
- high heart rate
That said, when a person consumes too much Zoloft, it can damage their pancreas and heart. A person may also hallucinate, become delirious, or pass out.
Extreme amounts of Zoloft can result in excessively high levels of serotonin in the brain, leading to potentially fatal issues, known as serotonin syndrome.
Symptoms of serotonin syndrome usually emerge within 24 hours of taking more than the necessary amount of an SSRI.
Serotonin syndrome requires immediate medical attention, so if a person taking an SSRI shows any of the following symptoms, find the nearest emergency room, or call 9-1-1:
- uncontrolled full-body shivers
- muscle tightness/rigidity
- severe seizures
The seizures associated with serotonin syndrome can be fatal.
Zoloft And Polysubstance Abuse
Mixing Zoloft with other substances such as alcohol or other prescription drugs without a doctor’s consent is known as polysubstance abuse. Polysubstance abuse can lead to a variety of adverse health effects including overdose and even death.
Common Zoloft drug combinations include:
Treating A Zoloft Addiction
There are a number of rehab centers across the United States that offer treatment options for people struggling with prescription drug abuse. An option for someone abusing Zoloft would be an inpatient substance abuse treatment program that offers detox, mental health services, and addiction treatment options.
If you or a loved one is dependent on Zoloft, contact one of our dedicated addiction treatment specialists today. A Zoloft addiction can be treated, and we can help.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Family Physician — Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — Zoloft Prescribing Information
- Joseph Glenmullen — The Antidepressant Solution