Pediatric Depression Medication

Updated: Dec 20, 2022
  • Author: Angelo P Giardino, MD, PhD, MPH, FAAP; Chief Editor: Caroly Pataki, MD  more...
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Medication Summary

Several classes of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), heterocyclics (eg, amoxapine, maprotiline), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), bupropion, venlafaxine, and nefazodone, have been used in the treatment of depression, although not all have been studied in the pediatric population. Of these, the types most frequently used in the pediatric population are SSRIs.

SSRIs are greatly preferred over the other classes of antidepressants. Because the adverse-effect profile of SSRIs is less prominent, improved compliance is promoted. SSRIs do not have the cardiac arrhythmia risk associated with TCAs. Arrhythmia risk is especially pertinent in overdose, and suicide risk must always be considered when treating a child or adolescent with mood disorder.


Antidepressants, SSRIs

Class Summary

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a relatively new group of medicines used to treat emotional and behavioral problems, including depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bulimia, and posttraumatic stress disorder in adults. These medications are beginning to be used to treat the same problems in children and adolescents. Serotonin is a chemical that exists naturally in the brain. The SSRIs increase brain serotonin to reference range levels. SSRIs include, but are not limited to, the following medications: fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, citalopram, and fluvoxamine.

Fluoxetine (Prozac)

Fluoxetine is an antidepressant agent that is chemically unrelated to the tricyclic, tetracyclic, or other available antidepressants. It selectively inhibits presynaptic serotonin reuptake with minimal or no effect on the reuptake of norepinephrine or dopamine and has been the best studied agent for pediatric depression.

Paroxetine (Paxil, Paxil CR, Pexeva)

Paroxetine is a potent selective inhibitor of neuronal serotonin reuptake. It has a weak effect on norepinephrine and dopamine neuronal reuptake. For maintenance therapy, make dosage adjustments to maintain the patient on the lowest effective dosage, and reassess the patient periodically to determine the need for continued treatment.

Sertraline (Zoloft)

Sertraline selectively inhibits presynaptic serotonin reuptake. Sertraline is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in children. It has also been used off label to treat depression in children.

Fluvoxamine (Luvox CR)

Fluvoxamine is a potent selective inhibitor of neuronal serotonin reuptake. It does not significantly bind to alpha-adrenergic, histamine, or cholinergic receptors and, thus, has fewer adverse effects than tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).

Citalopram (Celexa)

Citalopram enhances serotonin activity owing to selective reuptake inhibition at the neuronal membrane. Although citalopram is not FDA approved for use in children, various clinical trials have shown efficacy in the treatment of moderate-to-severe major depressive disorder (MDD) in children and adolescents.


Antidepressants, TCAs

Class Summary

From the 1960s to the late 1980s, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) represented the primary pharmacologic treatment for depression in the United States. Therapeutic effects of TCAs are thought to be caused by their ability to block the reuptake of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine in nerve terminals, which results in alterations in the sensitivity of various neuroreceptors.

TCAs are not currently recommended as a first-line treatment for depression in children and adolescents. TCAs commonly used in children and adolescents are imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), and amitriptyline.

TCAs should be initiated at low doses to minimize adverse effects; in adolescents, TCAs are usually prescribed in once-daily bedtime doses. Because children metabolize medications more quickly than adults, prepubertal children usually require twice-daily dosing.

Imipramine (Tofranil)

Imipramine inhibits the reuptake of norepinephrine or serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) at the presynaptic neuron. Use parenteral administration for starting therapy only in patients unable or unwilling to use oral medication.

Nortriptyline (Pamelor)

Nortriptyline works by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin and/or norepinephrine by the presynaptic neuronal membrane, thus increasing the synaptic concentration of these neurotransmitters in the central nervous system (CNS). Pharmacodynamic effects such as the desensitization of adenyl cyclase and down-regulation of beta-adrenergic receptors and serotonin receptors also appear to play a role in its mechanisms of action.

Desipramine (Norpramin)

Desipramine may increase the synaptic concentration of norepinephrine in the central nervous system (CNS) by inhibiting reuptake by the presynaptic neuronal membrane. It may have effects in the desensitization of adenyl cyclase, down-regulation of beta-adrenergic receptors, and down-regulation of serotonin receptors. Extreme caution should be used when desipramine is prescribed to patients with a family history of sudden death, conduction abnormalities, or cardiac dysrhythmias. In addition, in certain patients, seizures may precede dysrhythmias and death.


Amitriptyline inhibits the reuptake of serotonin and/or norepinephrine at the presynaptic neuronal membrane, thus increasing the concentration of these neurotransmitters in the CNS.