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The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently confirmed there is a link between some antidepressants and birth defects. This is big news, as there has been an ongoing debate about the safety of allowing expecting mothers to continue taking a class of antidepressants knowns as SSRIs while pregnant. And it's important to note that it's not all antidepressants that fall under this class—just some of them.
Researchers took a group of 38,000 mothers who gave birth between 1997 and 2009 and asked them if they'd taken any antidepressants before becoming pregnant or during the first trimester. They then compared the number of birth defects in the group to their responses and found that there was indeed a correlation between certain types of SSRIs and an increased risk of birth defects.
What is reassuring to note is that the study, published in the BMJ, found no connection between the most commonly prescribed antidepressant, Zoloft (sertraline), and birth defects. In fact, 40 percent of the women that were part of this study had taken Zoloft while pregnant. There was also no increased risk of birth defects with Lexapro (escitalopram) and Celexa (citalopram).
For women who took Prozac (fluoxetine) or Paxil (paroxetine), however, the relative risk increased 2 to 3.5 times. The defects ranged from heart defects, brain defects and irregular skull shapes, among others.
While this may sound scary, according to lead researcher Jennifer Reefhuis, "the overall risk is still small." She advises that "[i]f you're planning to get pregnant, it really is important to talk with your health care provider to see if there are options and if you could choose a safer option among antidepressants." And it's significant to realize that this is an association study, not a study that can directly correlate the use of the aforementioned drugs with birth defects.
We all know stress isn't good for an unborn baby and these findings will directly impact how doctors choose to treat pregnant women with depression. Dr. Edward McCabe, chief medical officer at the March of Dimes, told NPR that women need to be careful of asking to go off antidepressants altogether and that "being on an antidepressant should not keep [women] from having a pregnancy, because they can be put on a drug that's safe for their baby and will control their depression."