Selective serotonin [5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)] reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and the 5-HT noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, venlafaxine, are mainstays in treatment for depression. The highly specific actions of SSRIs of enhancing serotonergic neurotransmission appears to explain their benefit, while lack of direct actions on other neurotransmitter systems is responsible for their superior safety profile compared with tricyclic antidepressants. Although SSRIs (and venlafaxine) have similar adverse effects, certain differences are emerging. Fluvoxamine may have fewer effects on sexual dysfunction and sleep pattern. SSRIs have a cardiovascular safety profile superior to that of tricyclic antidepressants for patients with cardiovascular disease; fluvoxamine is safe in patients with cardiovascular disease and in the elderly. A discontinuation syndrome may develop upon abrupt SSRI cessation. SSRIs are more tolerable than tricyclic antidepressants in overdose, and there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that they are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Although the literature suggests that there are no clinically significant differences in efficacy amongst SSRIs, treatment decisions need to be based on considerations such as patient acceptability, response history and toxicity.