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Second-Generation Antidepressants in the Pharmacologic Treatment of Adult Depression: An Update of the 2007 Comparative Effectiveness Review

Systematic Review ARCHIVED Dec 5, 2011
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Structured Abstract


Depressive disorders such as major depressive disorder (MDD), dysthymia, and subsyndromal depression may be serious disabling illnesses. MDD affects more than 16 percent of adults at some point during their lifetimes. Second-generation antidepressants dominate the medical management of depressive disorders. These drugs include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and other drugs with related mechanisms of action that selectively target neurotransmitters.


The objective of this report was to compare the benefits and harms of bupropion, citalopram, desvenlafaxine, duloxetine, escitalopram, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, mirtazapine, nefazodone, paroxetine, sertraline, trazodone, and venlafaxine for the treatment of depressive disorders, including variations of effects in patients with accompanying symptoms and patient subgroups.

Data Sources

We updated a comparative effectiveness review published in 2007 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality searching PubMed, Embase, The Cochrane Library, and International Pharmaceutical Abstracts up to January 2011.

Review Methods

Two people independently reviewed the literature, abstracted data, and rated the risk of bias. If data were sufficient, we conducted meta-analyses of head-to-head trials of the relative benefit of response to treatment. In addition, we conducted mixed treatment comparisons to derive indirect estimates of the comparative efficacy among all second-generation antidepressants.


From a total of 3,722 citations, we identified 248 studies of good or fair quality. Overall, no substantial differences in efficacy could be detected among second-generation antidepressants for the treatment of acute-phase MDD. Statistically significant differences in response rates between some drugs are small and likely not clinically relevant. No differences in efficacy were apparent in patients with accompanying symptoms or in subgroups based on age, sex, ethnicity, or comorbidities, although evidence within these subpopulations was limited.

Differences exist in the incidence of specific adverse events and the onset of action. Venlafaxine leads to higher rates of nausea and vomiting, sertraline to higher rates of diarrhea, and mirtazapine to higher rates of weight gain than comparator drugs. Bupropion causes lower rates of sexual dysfunction than other antidepressants. The evidence is insufficient to draw conclusions about the comparative efficacy and effectiveness for the treatment of dysthymia and subsyndromal depression.


Our findings indicate that the existing evidence does not warrant the choice of one second-generation antidepressant over another based on greater efficacy and effectiveness. Differences with respect to onset of action and adverse events may be taken into consideration for the choice of a medication.

Journal Publications

Gartlehner G, Hansen RA, Morgan LC, et al. Comparative benefits and harms of second-generation antidepressants for treating major depressive disorder: an updated meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med 2011 Dec 6;155(11):772-85.

Project Timeline

Second-Generation Antidepressants in the Pharmacologic Treatment of Adult Depression: An Update of the 2007 Comparative Effectiveness Review

Jul 14, 2010
Topic Initiated
Jul 13, 2011
Dec 5, 2011
Systematic Review Archived
Page last reviewed December 2019
Page originally created November 2017

Internet Citation: Systematic Review: Second-Generation Antidepressants in the Pharmacologic Treatment of Adult Depression: An Update of the 2007 Comparative Effectiveness Review. Content last reviewed December 2019. Effective Health Care Program, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.

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