Coping With Sexual Side Effects From Antidepressants

man and women in the bedroom contemplating the sexual side effect of antidepressants

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Loss of sexual desire and difficulties performing during intimate encounters can be symptoms of depression, but they can also be side effects of many medications used to treat depression. For example, antidepressant medications such as Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft can have sexual side effects.

While antidepressants are often integral to managing depression, sexuality is an important piece of a healthy life for many people. Experiencing sexual side effects from antidepressants can be frustrating and disheartening, but there are ways to address them. 

Talking openly with a partner, doctor, or mental health care provider about sex may feel daunting, but it’s the first step to finding solutions. Here’s what you need to know about how depression and its treatment can affect your sex life, as well as some potential ways to address these challenges. 

Antidepressants With Sexual Side Effects

Research indicates sexual dysfunction prevalence rates for those taking the following antidepressants:

  • Zoloft (sertraline): 27.43%
  • Effexor (venlafaxine): 24.82%
  • Celexa (citalopram): 20.27%
  • Paxil (paroxetine): 16.68%
  • Prozac (fluoxetine): 15.59%
  • Tofranil (imipramine): 7.24%
  • Nardil (phenelzine): 6.24%
  • Cymbalta (duloxetine): 4.36%

While antidepressant medications do have side effects, including a risk for sexual side effects, it is important to remember that the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Side effects also often decrease with time as your body adjusts to your medication.

Never stop taking your medication without first talking to your doctor. Suddenly stopping your antidepressant medication can cause your depression symptoms to return or worsen and can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Sexual Side Effects of Antidepressants

Depression and antidepressant medications can cause symptoms such as low libido, vaginal dryness, and erectile dysfunction. People may also find it more difficult to have an orgasm, or may not have orgasms at all.  

Research indicates these sexual side effects are quite common. In fact, studies suggest that between 50% to 70% of people taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) experience some form of sexual dysfunction.

Sexual dysfunction related to depression may be even more prevalent than the statistics show. People may feel embarrassed and reluctant to report sexual problems to their doctor or psychiatrist. Even when they do share these side effects, a connection between the changes in their sex life and depression or medication may not be made.  

If you are experiencing sexual dysfunction, you can take the first step toward addressing it by acknowledging it exists and speaking up about it to your partner, as well as your doctor or therapist.

Communication will be very important—not just with your partner, but with your health care team. For example, if you are considering a different medication, want to change your dose, or add a supplement, always talk to your doctor and/or psychiatrist before making changes. 

Coping With Antidepressant Sexual Side Effects

While these approaches can be a helpful place to start, they may not work for everyone. You may need to try more than one before you find something that effectively addresses your symptoms. 

Ask About a Lower Dose

With your doctor's guidance, you may be able to take a lower dose of your antidepressant. Some people find this change is enough to reduce the sexual side effects while still effectively treating their depression. 

One study looking at the dose efficacy of antidepressants concluded that lower-range doses strike the best balance between tolerability and efficacy in the treatment of depression.

Have Sex Before You Take Your Pill

The timing of when you take your antidepressant may make a difference in your sex drive as well. Waiting until after you’ve had sex to take medications like Zoloft (sertraline) or tricyclic antidepressants may help reduce the sexual side effects, as you’re engaging in intimacy when the levels of the drugs in your body are lowest. 

Deciding when to take your medication will depend on many factors, such as your daily routine or other side effects you experience (such as nausea, which may be reduced if you take your pill with food, or trouble sleeping).

When you’re deciding when to take your pill, make sure to factor your pattern of sexual activity into your scheduling. If you are most likely to have sex in the evening, it may help if you take your pill in the morning. 

Ask Your Doctor About Switching to a Different Antidepressant

Certain types of antidepressant medications may be less likely to have sexual side effects. Trintellix is a depression medication that has been shown to involve fewer sexual side effects, for example. And Wellbutrin (bupropion), a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI), works in a different way than selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil.

For some people experiencing sexual side effects when taking SSRIs, switching to a different option may help solve the problem.

In some cases, your doctor may want you to continue taking the medication you were originally prescribed for depression but add a second, like Wellbutrin as well. They may also recommend drugs that are specifically designed to treat sexual dysfunction.

Research has shown that in addition to antidepressants, people who experience erectile dysfunction can benefit from medications such as Viagra (sildenafil) or Cialis (tadalafil) that are targeted to treat the disorder.

Consider a "Medication Holiday"

If your doctor would prefer to stay on the same dose of your medication, you may be able to talk to them about taking periodic breaks or "drug holidays." Some people find that scheduling a day or two off from taking certain antidepressants, such as Zoloft and Paxil, allows them to get relief from the side effects without interrupting the therapeutic benefits. 

However, this strategy may not work with every antidepressant. Prozac, for example, has a much longer half-life than most antidepressants, which means the level of the drug remains consistent in your body for an extended period of time after you stop taking it. 

The drug’s long half-life can be beneficial when you’re trying to stop or switch antidepressants (as it makes withdrawal symptoms less likely). But, it also makes taking a “holiday” from the medication more difficult.  

Talk to Your Doctor First

You should never stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first. It is also important to recognize that taking a medication holiday can contribute to worse treatment adherence and a higher risk of discontinuation. Both can have a detrimental effect on your depression symptoms and treatment outcomes.

Only consider a medication holiday under the supervision of your doctor and be sure to follow their recommendations for when to resume taking your medication.

Try Other Ways to Deal With Sexual Side Effects

If you’ve tried making adjustments to your antidepressant or switching meds but the sexual side effects persist, you may want to shift your focus to other approaches. 

Methods for addressing the sexual side effects of antidepressants can also help if the symptoms you’re experiencing are being caused by depression. You may find these strategies even help you better manage your depression overall. 

Psychotherapy, acupuncture, nutritional supplements, and other alternatives may be worth trying. You can also encourage your partner to get in on some of these lifestyle changes. You might try exercising together to gear up for sex or incorporate new types of stimulation into your routine.  

Consider Other Causes

If you’ve tried to address your sexual symptoms with multiple methods and aren’t seeing any improvement, it may be that there’s another cause. 

There are many psychological and physical ailments that can affect your sexuality other than depression and medications.

Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is a common, but not frequently discussed, sexual health condition. People with HSDD (now split into two disorders in the DSM-5: female sexual interest/arousal disorder and male hypoactive sexual desire disorder) experience no drive for sexual or intimate experiences. A person with HSDD does not pursue sexual closeness and many do not think or fantasize about sex.

Low libido or lack of interest in sex is not always experienced as a problem; in fact, it can be a valid sexual identity for some people (asexuality). However, this is not the case for people with HSDD. People with the condition are distressed by their lack of desire, which they often report has a profoundly negative impact on their relationships. 

Sexual dysfunction can also be caused by certain behaviors. If you use alcohol or other substances. You may experience sexual side effects as a result of substance use or withdrawal.

Age-related changes, chronic illness or pain, and life stressors (such as having a new baby or starting a new job) can also impact your sex life. These factors may make it more challenging to cope with sexual side effects caused by depression or medications.

Talking With Your Partner 

Communication is an important part of a healthy relationship. When you and your partner are dealing with sexual difficulties, it’s even more important that you can talk to each other. 

Discussing these topics may be emotionally intense and will require both of you to find (or make) time for the conversation, but it's important that you do. Maintaining open dialogue is part of keeping your relationship strong.

Together, you and your partner can create a space in which you both feel safe expressing your feelings. By the end of the talk, you will each ideally come away feeling heard, understood, and that you have the other person's love and support.

Every couple has their own way of communicating and each person in the relationship has a different style of expressing how they feel. Your individual emotional and sexual needs (as well as those of your partner) are unique, but you may find these general guidelines can help you both communicate more effectively

Don’t Stay Silent

You might be hesitant to acknowledge the difficulties, but you won’t be able to work toward a solution until they are out in the open and up for discussion. Talking with your doctor or therapist first can help you figure out how to best approach the conversation with your partner when you’re ready. 

Avoid Blame

Whether you are experiencing the symptoms of sexual dysfunction yourself or you are the partner of someone who is, do your best to keep blame out of the conversation. Avoid placing blame on the other person, but also resist the urge to blame yourself. 

Be Honest

It can be difficult to express disappointment and frustration in a relationship, but these feelings can be even more sensitive when they’re about sex. You might think that keeping these emotions from your partner is saving their feelings, but ignoring your own emotional needs or playing them down isn’t healthy for you or your relationship.

Work Together

Depression can make someone feel very alone. When you love someone who is depressed you may feel isolated from them. If you and your partner are trying to work through sexual difficulties in your relationship that stem from depression, approach the problem solving from a team perspective. Remember, you are in it together. Reinforce your partnership often and in ways that are separate from sex. 

Ask for Help

If you are struggling to communicate, you and your partner may benefit from relationship counseling. Having a trusted therapist create a safe space to openly share feelings and work on problems can make all the difference to couples who have had a hard time figuring it out on their own.

A therapist can also act as a moderator and make sure each person gets a chance to share feelings and offer ideas. A therapist’s own knowledge and experience can also make them an invaluable resource for possible solutions. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.