Wellbutrin became an FDA-approved antidepressant in 1989. Since then, the drug has helped millions of people lead happier and healthier lives. However, in recent years, there’s been an uptick in Wellbutrin abuse, and fatalities related to the drug are rising. The good news is that addiction professionals have learned more about the substance and developed effective programs to help people overcome Wellbutrin addiction.
What Is Wellbutrin?
Wellbutrin and Prolev are two brand names for bupropion, a drug usually prescribed to combat major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder. Patients may also use it for ADHD, obesity, sexual issues, and bipolar disorder. Bupropion is also marketed as a smoking cessation drug under the names Zyban and Quomem. Scientifically speaking, it’s an antidepressant in the aminoketone class.
A standout in the mental health medication space, Wellbutrin doesn’t work like other SSRI antidepressants, including Prozac and Zoloft. Those drugs increase serotonin levels in the brain. Wellbutrin, however, affects norepinephrine and dopamine, two other cerebral chemicals.
According to ClinCalc.com, approximately 24,488,843 people have bupropion prescriptions, and it’s the 27th most prescribed drug on the market. Other brand names for the medication include Aplenzin and Forfivo XL.
History of Wellbutrin
Initially developed in 1969 by Nariman Mehta of GlaxoSmithKline, bupropion was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an antidepressant in 1985. However, its first few years on the market proved challenging. Despite earning the FDA’s stamp of approval, a large percentage of people who were prescribed the drug experienced epileptic seizures at the recommended dosage. By 1986, authorities had recalled bupropion.
After several more years of research, scientists determined that lowering the dosage mitigated the seizure frequency significantly. In 1989, armed with a new and lower recommended daily dose, the drug’s parent company reintroduced Wellbutrin.
Patients took early generations of Wellbutrin thrice daily. In 1996, a twice-daily formulation hit the market, and in 2003, a one-a-day extended-release formula became standard.
How Most Antidepressants Work
Most antidepressants are SSRIs, which stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Serotonin is a messenger chemical that ferries signals between nerve cells. Scientists believe it positively influences our moods, emotions, and sleep health. But once serotonin performs its transport duty, the nerve cells typically reabsorb it — like a sponge soaking up a water spill.
SSRIs, like Prozac and Zoloft, block the “reuptake” process, which leaves more serotonin in the brain. The increased amounts help patients feel better and make them more responsive to behavioral therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
How Wellbutrin Works
Wellbutrin is taken orally and comes in extended-release, sustained-release, and immediate-release tablets.
Unlike its counterparts, Wellbutrin isn’t an SSRI. Instead, it stimulates the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals, including norepinephrine and dopamine. Simultaneously, bupropion selectively inhibits norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake.
It also works well as a smoking cessation drug is because bupropion blocks nicotinic receptors in the brain, which squashes nicotine cravings.
Compared to other antidepressants, Wellbutrin is considered “weaker” and non-habit-forming. As such, it’s widely prescribed, and scores of patients credit bupropion with changing their lives for the better. Nevertheless, addiction is always a possibility.
Since doctors regard Wellbutrin as “safe” and “non-addictive,” they freely prescribe it, making the substance one of the more accessible drugs of which people can get a hold. In fact, bupropion can be bought over the counter as Zyban in some Canadian provinces, and it readily finds its way over the border. Moreover, minors are also raiding their parents’ medicine cabinets to get their hands on the “fake cocaine.”
Due to its widespread availability, Wellbutrin over-use is common. However, in terms of reducing Wellbutrin’s availability on the streets, the lion’s share of the responsibility falls to doctors. Experts recommend that health professionals familiarize themselves with Wellbutrin addiction and act more cautiously when handing out scripts to individuals who may be prone to abuse. Medical professionals should also be careful about prescribing the substance to those who may not need it and are just acquiring stockpiles to sell.
Parents who take Wellbutrin should treat the drug as dangerous and keep it tucked away.
Contraindications for Wellbutrin
Individuals with epilepsy, low seizure thresholds, bulimia nervosa, or anorexia nervosa should steer clear of Wellbutrin. Moreover, doctors should never prescribe it to patients dealing with alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors — aka MAOIs — are also contraindicated with bupropion drugs, like Wellbutrin and Zyban. If prescribing doctors feel that bupropion is the absolute best option for a given patient who previously took MAOIs, they should, at the very least, ensure the patient completes a two-week washout period.
People dealing with kidney disease and hypertension also need to be very careful with Wellbutrin. The best option is to avoid it altogether.
Nobody should take Wellbutrin or any bupropion-based medicine without first consulting with a doctor.
Though rare, overdosing on bupropion is possible for both people who take it as prescribed and those who abuse the drug. Symptoms may include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Muscle rigidity
- Muscle damage
- Respiratory failure
The maximum daily dose of Wellbutrin is 450 mg. Overdoses that require medical attention involve dosages above 600 mg.
Over the years, as is sadly the case with many prescription drugs, Wellbutrin has become a hot commodity on the black market, and people use it as a substitute for harder illegal drugs. The first medical report of recreational bupropion use popped up in 2002. On the street, they’re called “wellies,” “bubs,” or “barnies.”
People who take bupropion recreationally typically crush or melt it and then snort or inject it. The effects are incredibly similar to meth, other amphetamines, and crack cocaine — but it costs significantly less. According to some public health officials, as a result of its low price point and comparative euphoric high, Wellbutrin has surpassed Oxycontin’s popularity. Another hurdle in the fight against Wellbutrin addiction is that it’s not inherently illegal to possess. Getting a prescription can be exceptionally easy.
Much of its potency is linked to the crushing and melting. When taken correctly, the active ingredients slowly release into the body. But when smashed and directly introduced into the bloodstream, users experience a rush followed by a substantial-high. It doesn’t last long, but it’s intense.
Adding to the problem, dealers stretch their dollars and increase profits by cutting street drugs with Wellbutrin and Zyban.
In recent years, many jails and prisons in the United States have ceased dispensing bupropion to residents on account of growing abuse statistics.
Potentially Fatal Dangers of Addiction
Wellbutrin addiction can be fatal. Since the pills contain other ingredients, they can cause severe blood clots and ultimately death when snorted or injected.
Excessive amounts of the drug can also cause tissue erosion. In one harrowing story, a man tried to inject the drug into his jugular vein but missed and hit the vertebral artery. His mistake caused the Wellbutrin to surge into his spinal column. As a result, his brain stem deteriorated, and the man died.
Abscesses are another common side effect of Wellbutrin addiction. Not only do they fester, but they can lead to sepsis shock, a highly fatal condition, and deadly bacterial infections. Rick Thompson, an outreach worker for Superior Points Harm Reduction in Thunder Bay, explained:
“If left untreated, abscesses could lead to all sorts of complications including going septic as well as eventually death if it gets left alone long enough. We have had lots of our clients over the years that have died from bacterial infections, which started off as infections with an abscess.”
Another unique danger of Wellbutrin is that coming down can be unbearable. As a result, to avoid the painful experience, many people do more. It’s a vicious cycle.
Signs of Addiction
People who inject Wellbutrin and other bupropion drugs may develop weeping abscesses everywhere. In some cases, the marks may look like those commonly found on the bodies of heroin and methamphetamine users.
Seizures are another tell-tale sign of Wellbutrin abuse. Since the drug lowers the seizure threshold, people who wouldn’t normally suffer from the affliction may succumb to fits. It’s important to note that people who use bupropion as prescribed may also experience seizures. If this happens, get to a hospital as soon as possible.
Outward signs that someone may be high on Wellbutrin or Zyban include:
- Sense of exhilaration
- Heightened sense of self-esteem
- Manic energy
- Loss of appetite
Detoxing and Recovering
Detoxing from controlled use of bupropion can be like quitting smoking. Individuals may experience sweating, appetite loss, irritability, insomnia, mood swings, and light tremors. Detoxing from over-use of Wellbutrin and other bupropion medications, however, can be similar to kicking amphetamines and cocaine.
In addition to a 12-step approach, successful recovery typically involves several pillars.
Acknowledgment: First and foremost, patients must recognize that they have a problem. The saying may be cliche, but it’s also true: you cannot help someone who does not want to be helped.
Support: Life is difficult. Life during recovery can be even more confusing. Support from both family and friends, in addition to professional addiction counselors and medical professionals, makes all the difference.
Sleep: Trying to detox and recover from any substance — including Wellbutrin — is not only mentally rough, but it can also do a number on your body. As such, getting enough sleep while going through the process is vital.
Once those pillars are in place, patients can more readily embark down the 12-step path.
- Soul Searching
- Making contact
After detoxing from Wellbutrin, it’s ideal to have an aftercare plan. Since the drug is so readily available, relapsing is common and can be deadly. However, individuals who seek out support groups or outpatient counseling often find the fortitude to stay quit.
And you don’t need to figure it out alone. Rehab communities, like the one at Granite Recovery Centers, are excellent resources for Wellbutrin aftercare options.
Getting Help for Wellbutrin Addiction at Granite Recovery Centers
For over 10 years, Granite Recovery Centers has been helping people throughout New Hampshire, and New England at large overcome alcohol and drug addictions. By combining medical treatments and clinical psychotherapies with a comprehensive 12-step curriculum, Granite Recovery has helped countless individuals live their best and healthiest lives.
For those who have become dependent on Wellbutrin, detox support is available. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency. If you’re interested in learning more about Wellbutrin use disorder and breaking the cycle, reach out to Granite Recovery Centers today. Sobriety is within your grasp, and holding on just requires a bit of support.