The opioid epidemic gets a lot of media attention, and deservedly so. The rate of fatal overdoses involving opioids has been climbing for nearly 20 years and in 2017 reached nearly 50,000. However, there may be another problem looming the shadow of the opioid epidemic. The rate of fatal overdoses involving benzodiazepines has been climbing too.

Benzodiazepines are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the US. This class of medication includes drugs like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin. Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed for anxiety and insomnia. They work well for these purposes when taken as needed, but they can also be extremely addictive. You can develop a physical dependence on benzodiazepines in a matter of weeks if you use them regularly. Once that physical dependence has developed, benzodiazepines are very hard to quit. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is among the worst of any drug and quitting cold turkey can be fatal. Withdrawal symptoms include rebound anxiety, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks, tremors, sweating, nausea, headaches, muscle pain, and perceptual changes. Severe withdrawal may include seizures and psychotic episodes.

Clearly, benzodiazepines should be prescribed and used with caution. However, that caution is often lacking. Benzodiazepine prescriptions increased by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013 and it continues to rise. Opioid prescriptions, on the other hand, have been declining since 2012. What’s more, your risk of fatal overdose quadruples when opioids are used with benzodiazepines. Despite this, co-prescribing of opioids and benzodiazepines almost doubled between 2001 and 2013. As a result, the rate of fatal overdoses involving benzodiazepines increased sevenfold between 1999 and 2015.

Benzodiazepines are also dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Both are central nervous system depressants and the combination of the two is more dangerous than either alone. Not only is there an increased risk of overdose, but mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines can more severely impair your judgment and coordination, leading to serious mistakes and accidents.

Benzodiazepines are particularly dangerous for older patients, for mainly two reasons. First, older patients typically take more medications, increasing the chances of a negative interaction with the benzodiazepine. Second, older patients are more at risk for falls and the consequences of a fall are much more serious. Since benzodiazepines impair judgment and coordination, especially when used frequently, the risk of a fall is much greater. Despite this, older patients are often prescribed benzodiazepines to help them sleep, which often becomes more difficult with age.

As with the opioid epidemic, the solution to the benzodiazepine epidemic begins with greater awareness by both doctors and patients. It’s especially important for patients to be circumspect about being prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety or insomnia. If you do decide to use a benzodiazepine, use it only occasionally for intense anxiety. In the long term, anxiety is treated far more effectively by SSRI antidepressants and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy along with practical adjustments can very effective for insomnia too.

If you or someone you love is struggling with benzodiazepine addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.