There’s a reason the number of drug overdoses in the U.S. gets compared to an epidemic: Over 47,000 people died from them in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also reports more than 6 out of 10 overdose deaths were due to opioids, a class of drugs including everything from tar heroin to pharmaceutical painkillers.
Given the high profile this class of drugs has, it’s no wonder opiates have received much of the attention when drug abuse is covered. Rightly so – opioids, although safe and helpful when used appropriately, come with strong risks. However, they’re not the only widely available, popularly used and potentially lethal drug. A recent study found anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium also carry a significant threat of overdose.
More prescriptions, more overdoses
Study author Marcus Bachhuber, M.D., and colleagues examined data from the CDC’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey along with other CDC data. Between 1996 and 2013, there was a 67 percent increase in the number of adults who filled prescriptions for benzodiazepine drugs, the family of drugs that Xanax and other anti-anxiety medications belong to. In addition to the number of prescriptions, the research team also found the amount of benzodiazepines prescribed increased by 140 percent. Overdoses from these drugs increased by more than five times, from 0.58 per 100,000 adults to 3.07 in 2013.
“Among people who filed benzodiazepine prescriptions, the median quantity filled over the year more than doubled between 1996 and 2013, suggesting either a higher daily dose or more days of treatment, which potentially increased the risk of fatal overdose,” the researchers wrote in their report.
The researchers looked at additional reasons for the increase in overdoses, including misuse and abuse. “People at high risk for fatal overdose may be obtaining diverted benzodiazepines (i.e., not directly from medical providers) … Finally, increases in alcohol use or combining benzodiazepines with other medications (e.g., opioid analgesics) could increase the risk of fatal overdose and explain this rise.”
The researchers also noted that the use of benzodiazepines is common in patients who have also been prescribed opioid painkillers, and estimated opioids were involved in 74 percent of the overdose deaths which involved benzodiazepines.
What are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines – informally called “benzos” – are central nervous system depressants and commonly prescribed for anxiety, depression and sleeping disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), benzos work by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter GABA, a chemical produced when the brain is under stress from fear or anxiety. GABA has a sedating effect on the system.
Although benzos are safe when used correctly over a short period of time, they can have negative effects. Like many drugs, it’s possible to build up a tolerance to their effects, requiring greater amounts of the drug. This can lead to physical dependence. Additionally, combining benzos with other drugs, like alcohol, can be very dangerous. NIDA warns this combination can negatively affect heart and lung function, leading to coma and death.
Alternatives to drugs
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, teaches patients dealing with anxiety and depression new ways of looking at their problems, and finding new solutions to their problems. Studies have shown that these methods benefit patients, without the downsides of benzos, such as withdrawal symptoms.
Many people fall into addiction without intending to do so – although drugs like Xanax have genuine uses, they can turn addictive when used too often. Sovereign Health of California understands that addiction isn’t a sign of weak character, but a chronic disease that can and should be treated. Contact our 24/7 helpline for more information.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.