Wellbutrin: Side Effects, Risks & Addiction

Wellbutrin is one of the most frequently prescribed antidepressants in the U.S. It is not considered addictive, but some users may misuse the drug by taking higher doses than prescribed. Long-term use can also result in serious side effects and health risks.
Evidence Based
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What is Wellbutrin?

Wellbutrin (bupropion) is an FDA approved antidepressant medication. The medication treats major depressive disorder in adults, as well as seasonal affective disorder (episodes of depression that commonly occur during the fall and winter seasons). It is also used in the treatment of smoking cessation. Off label, non-FDA approved uses include:

  • Antidepressant-induced sexual dysfunction
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression associated with bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Obesity

It is also a mood-altering drug that belongs to a class of antidepressants known as aminoketones. It is one of the most frequently prescribed antidepressants in the U.S.

Additionally, unlike most antidepressants—which are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—Wellbutrin works differently. More specifically, it is a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI). This means that it increases the levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter), which in turn improves one’s mood.

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Use and Dosage

There are three formulations of this medication available, including:

  • Immediate Release
  • Sustained Release (SL)
  • Extended-Release (XL)
Wellbutrin pill

When you are prescribed Wellbutrin, you need to carefully follow the directions and dosage. Additionally, it is important to communicate your complete medical history, including all medications being taken, to your doctor, in order to avoid any possible drug interactions.

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Risks of Wellbutrin

Before taking Wellbutrin or any antidepressant medication, you should speak with your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of the medication. Wellbutrin, like any medication, comes with several possible side effects, most of which are not serious and likely to disappear once the body becomes used to them. However, other side effects may be severe and even life-threatening.

Seizures and suicidal thoughts are two of the most serious potential side effects of Wellbutrin. Though the occurrence of seizures is rare, the risk is approximately four times higher than that of other antidepressant medications. Antidepressant drugs, such as Wellbutrin, may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior, especially at the beginning of the treatment or any time that the dose is increased or decreased.

Children, teenagers, and young adults who take antidepressants to treat depression or other mental illnesses may be more likely to become suicidal than those who do not take antidepressants to treat these conditions. Thus, this risk should be taken into account when considering prescribing this medication to a child or teenager. Individuals of all ages who begin taking Wellbutrin should also be monitored and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior.

Four out of every 1000 people who take Wellbutrin in doses less than 450 mg/day experience seizures. When these doses exceed 450 mg/day, the risk increases ten-fold.

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Side effects of Wellbutrin

Common side effects of Wellbutrin that usually cease in a few weeks once the body adjusts to the drug include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation and abdominal pain
  • Weakness
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Insomnia
  • Dizziness
  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Tremors
  • Increased sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Appetite loss and weight loss
  • Changes in the way food tastes and a strange taste in the mouth
  • Ringing in ears
  • Increased urination
  • Hair loss
  • Flushing
  • Gas

Some side effects of Wellbutrin can be severe or even potentially life-threatening. Get medical help promptly if you experience any of the following symptoms while taking Wellbutrin:

  • Changes in vision
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain
  • Aggressiveness or hostility
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Fever and chills
  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Yellow skin or eyes
  • Dark urine
  • Severe headaches
  • Skin rash or swollen and blistered skin
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts and ideation
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Addiction Symptoms

Wellbutrin is generally considered to be non-habit forming and non-addictive. However, like any other drug, it has the potential to be abused and can lead to addiction.

The non-medical use of Wellbutrin has not been thoroughly studied. However, its effects on dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain are similar to that of illicit stimulants, such as cocaine. The drug can be abused by crushing and snorting, which then immediately delivers a high dose of the drug into the bloodstream.

Other reported methods of its abuse include taking a higher dose of medication than prescribed and dissolving the medication in water and then injecting intravenously.

Signs of Wellbutrin dependence or addiction include becoming obsessed with ingesting the drug and losing interest in daily life or in the activities and hobbies you once enjoyed.

Several reports have shown that smokers trying to quit would misuse Wellbutrin, leading to several cases of overdose in 2013. In the early 2000s, the drug had a low prescription rate of less than 0.05 percent. By 2013, the rate drastically increased to 0.47 percent due to substance misuse.

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Addiction Treatment

Do not discontinue Wellbutrin use abruptly unless it results in a seizure. Discuss with your doctor the option to discontinue and the manner in which to go about doing this. Coming off antidepressants is generally done in a specific process of tapering the dosage over time to help avoid withdrawal symptoms. In severe cases, a medically assisted detoxification program may be necessary to get the help you need. A safe recovery begins with a safe detox.

Once detox is complete, and Wellbutrin is completely out of your system, participation in therapies is necessary. This may include recreational therapy and group therapy. Additional assistance should be provided if the individual suffers from co-occurring mental health or eating disorders.

If you or a loved one is struggling with Wellbutrin addiction, seeking professional help is the first step to living a substance-free life.


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Resources

National Institute of Health. “Bupropion”. NIH, https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a695033.html.

CTV News, Updated July 25, 2013. “Doctors warn of potentially fatal abuse of Wellbutrin antidepressant.” CTV, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/health-headlines/doctors-warn-of-potentially-fatal-abuse-of-wellbutrin-antidepressant-1.1383282

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Wellbutrin”. FDA, https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2009/018644s039s040.pdf

Patel, Krisna et al. “Bupropion: a systematic review and meta-analysis of effectiveness as an antidepressant.” Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology, 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837968/

Fava, Maurizio et al. “15 years of clinical experience with bupropion HCl: from bupropion to bupropion SR to bupropion XL.” Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1163271/

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Updated on: July 20, 2020
Author
Addiction Group Staff
About
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Medically Reviewed: February 18, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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