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If someone mentions a “drug overdose,” it’s natural to link illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine (meth) to the cause. Although it’s less common to think of legal, prescribed drugs as being involved in overdoses, certain drug classes like benzodiazepines warrant serious attention.
As prescription rates for benzos have exploded over the years, so have benzodiazepine-related overdose deaths. Involving benzodiazepines in the discussion of addiction, abuse, and the most serious, overdose and death, is long overdue.
What Are Benzos and Why Are They Prescribed?
Benzodiazepines (commonly referred to as benzos) are a class of sedative drugs prescribed to help with anxiety, seizures, panic disorders, muscle spasms, sleeplessness, and other nerve-related conditions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67%, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million between 1996 and 2013.
Although they can be effective if used as prescribed and carefully monitored, they’re also dangerous. Benzos are habit forming, addictive, and their side effects include low blood pressure and slowed heart rate and breathing.
These are the most commonly prescribed benzos as well as the most frequently found benzodiazepines on the illicit market:
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Temazepam (Restoril)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
Although zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) are not technically benzos (they’re both hypnotics), they are similar enough to benzos due to their sedative effects and deserve a place in this conversation.
Benzodiazepine Addiction and Withdrawal Symptoms
When a benzodiazepine is used in a way that’s against medical advice, physical and psychological dependence on the drug may develop. Dependence can lead to tolerance of the drug, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms if the individual stops using the drug or reduce the dosage.
Benzo addiction and subsequent withdrawal may lead to the following symptoms:
- Anxiety, depression, hypersensitivity, physical tremors, sleep disturbance, panic attacks, irritability, and headaches.
- Self-harming behavior and suicidal tendencies, especially in young people.
- Psychosis and convulsions (in rare cases).
The worst-case scenario for a benzo addiction is overdose and death. Despite the fact that they have a lower risk of dependence than more powerful drugs like oxycodone or codeine, benzos still cause slowed breathing which may cause an insufficient amount of oxygen getting to the body. This may result in death.
A Deadly Combination: Benzos and Opioids
Although benzos can be deadly on their own, they are most deadly when they’re used in conjunction with other drugs like alcohol or opioids. The number of deaths related to overdoses that involved benzodiazepines increased from 1,298 in 2000 to 10,684 in 2016.
Despite the dangers of using multiple sedatives, individuals will frequently use benzos and opioids together. The alarming part? Many of them are simultaneously prescribed both medications by medical professionals. According to research concluded by The BMJ in 2017, the number of patients prescribed both opioids and benzos has increased tremendously since 2000. Thirty percent of fatal opioid overdose deaths involve benzodiazepines.
The Need for Public Awareness
Despite the alarming rate that prescriptions for benzos have increased over the past 20 years, and the scary statistics involving benzo-related overdose deaths, there is little public discussion regarding the dangers of benzodiazepines, especially when used in combination with other drugs like opioids. Policymakers, doctors, and researchers dedicate a lot of time to opioid awareness and rightfully so; however, individuals using benzos must be made aware of the risks of using this class of drugs and the importance of using them as prescribed.
It’s never too late to get help. Contact a Beach House medical professional at our drug rehab center immediately if you suspect that you or a friend may have an addiction to or need more information about benzodiazepines.