Anxiety levels are on the rise across the country and prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are skyrocketing. This group of anti-anxiety medications include drugs such as Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin and Valium. A study conducted by Express Scripts of more than 3 million people found that prescriptions for benzos increased by 34% from mid-February to mid-March, which is when the pandemic began worsening in the U.S. In 2019, a "normal" year, the FDA estimated that there were already 92 million benzo prescriptions dispensed in our country.
A October health tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed two-thirds of Americans are worried they or their family will get sick from the coronavirus, which is up 13% since April. It's not surprising that people are seeking relief from the anxiety. These medications are very helpful when taken as prescribed for a short period of time, however long-term use is harmful.
What You Need to Know About Benzos
1. Benzos Are Addictive
This fall the FDA added additional warnings to the labels for these medications. Drug companies now have to outline the risks of abuse, addiction, physical dependence and withdrawal on the labels. When taken long-term, a person builds a tolerance for the medication and requires a higher dose to get the same effect. If a person becomes dependent on benzos, they will experience withdrawal when trying to stop taking them. Contact a medical professional in order to safely get off of these medications after taking them long-term. Find treatment near you.
2. It's Easy to Accidentally Overdose Even if You're Taking Them Properly
Benzos work by suppressing the central nervous system, which calms the body, and they increase GABA, a chemical in the brain that calms brain activity. When the central nervous system is suppressed, breathing slows. What people may not realize is alcohol and opioids have the same effect. If a person takes benzos after having a drink they could overdose. The same goes with opioid pain relievers or illicit opioids.
A JAMA Network Open study examined data for all opioid-involved poisoning deaths from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2017. They found benzodiazepines co-involvement in all opioid overdose deaths increased nonlinearly from 8.7% in 1999 to 21.0% in 2017. They also found benzos were present in 33.1% of prescription opioid overdoses and 17.1% of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2017.
3. Older Adults Face More Side-Effects
Benzos can impair cognitive functioning and increase the risk of dementia. They can also cause falls and fractures because dizziness is a common side effect, especially in the elderly. Older people are also more likely to be taking multiple medications and inadvertently overdose. Read more about this population.
A New "Designer" Benzo is on Our Streets
The Connecticut Department of Health reported that Flualprazolam, a "designer" benzodiazepine, has emerged as a new substance in combination with fentanyl, resulting in seven overdose deaths in our state. Across the country there have been reports of flualprazolam appearing in counterfeit alprazolam (Xanax) pills.
Flualprazolam is a benzo that is unregistered for therapeutic use, but is widely available on the internet. The drug is structurally similar to alprazolam (Xanax) and triazolam (Halcion), both of which are approved benzos. It was patented in 1976, but was never marketed or used as a medicinal product. Instead, it has been marketed as a research chemical since 2017.