SSRIs and PPHN: How Antidepressants Link to Birth Defects


    Taking any medication during pregnancy can pose risks to a developing baby. That’s due to the limited ability to perform clinical safety testing. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are currently under investigation for birth defects. These drugs include popular brands such as Celexa, Zoloft and Lexapro, and many drug makers face high volumes of lawsuits as more research on their safety during pregnancy is conducted.

    SSRIs and Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn

    In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration released a statement about SSRIs. The agency warned that antidepressants could cause persistent pulmonary hypertension. PPHD is a heart and lung condition that inhibits a newborn baby’s ability to transition from low pulmonary blood flow/high pulmonary vascular resistance to high pulmonary blood blow/low pulmonary vascular resistance. This causes several life-threatening difficulties for newborns, such as the inability to breathe outside the womb.

    While some research has been inconclusive about the connection between PPHN and SSRI use (the FDA posted and retracted a warning in response to mixed studies), more recent research suggests that exposure to SSRIs late in pregnancy does, in fact, increase the risk of PPHN. Researchers evaluated nearly 2 million infants born after 33 weeks in Nordic countries. Mothers who had used SSRIs were identified and then stratified by date of exposure (primarily by trimester). The later in pregnancy the antidepressant was taken, the higher the rate of PPHN. Overall early exposure indicated an increased risk, while late exposure indicated a significant risk.

    This has put many doctors and moms-to-be in a precarious position, as depression is a serious condition that poses its own risks to both the mom and the baby. Women whose children have a birth defect may feel grossly uninformed about this issue.

    Other Birth Defects Associated with SSRIs

    SSRIs work by preventing the reuptake of serotonin in the body. This effect, which is generally beneficial for women suffering from depression, can be detrimental to a developing baby. Other birth defects associated with the use of SSRIs include autism, organ damage, malformation of the brain, cleft lip or palate, breathing problems, hyperactivity or medication withdrawal. While some of these problems can be rectified, many are permanent – and several can lead to death.

    SSRIs carry another birth defect risk: premature labor. One University of Pittsburgh study examined the use of SSRIs during pregnancy. They found that 20% of babies were born pre-term for women taking SSRIs. The FDA advises health care professionals not to stop treating depression during pregnancy, as the condition itself can be dangerous to a developing baby as well. There are alternatives to SSRIs, so be sure to speak with your doctor about your treatment options before you stop taking them.

    SSRIs illuminate a pressing issue about prescription drugs and pregnancy. While many medications are safe for adult use under normal circumstances, they play a vital role in fetal development. Many drugs can cross the placental barrier, interfering with normal fetal growth. This leaves healthcare professionals unsure how to prescribe them. Further research needs to be conducted on safe, testable options for pregnant women moving forward so that more mothers aren’t plagued with such horrible, debilitating birth defects in the future.

    What You Can Do

    If you or someone you know took SSRIs during pregnancy and experienced birth defects such as PPHN, you may be eligible for compensation. It’s a good idea to speak with an attorney who is familiar with mass torts of this nature, as he or can help you be successful with your case moving forward. Eli Lilly, Pfizer and other drug manufacturers now face SSRI-related birth defect lawsuits. Now is the perfect time to make your claim.

    1. “FDA Drug Safety Communication: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) Antidepressant Use during Pregnancy and Reports of a Rare Heart and Lung Condition in Newborn Babies.” FDA Drug Safety Communication: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) Antidepressant Use during Pregnancy and Reports of a Rare Heart and Lung Condition in Newborn Babies. December 14, 2011. Accessed April 22, 2015.

    2. “Premature Birth Risk Higher for Pregnant Women Taking SSRIs or Suffering from Untreated Depression.” NIMH RSS. March 19, 2009. Accessed April 22, 2015.

    3. Ehrlich, Alan. “SSRIs in Late Pregnancy May Increase PPHN Risk in Newborns.” – The Clinical Advisor. Accessed April 22, 2015.

    4. “More Evidence SSRIs in Pregnancy Boost Birth Defect Risk.” Medscape. June 28, 2011. Accessed April 22, 2015.

    Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.

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