Benzodiazepines belong to the sedative-hypnotic-anxiolytic class of drugs, which are used to decrease agitation and anxiety, and help with sleep. When used properly, they can help. But when abused, they can cause addiction, overdose and death.
Learn about benzodiazepines, their effects on your health and the risks of abuse.
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What are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs. They target the brain and spinal cord (nervous system), which control body functions. These drugs slow down brain activity. This produces a drowsy or calming effect, which can be used to treat people with conditions such as:
- anxiety disorders,
- panic attacks,
- sleep disorders, and
- seizure disorders.
Benzodiazepines are only legally available by prescription and usually in pill form.
What are the side effects of using benzodiazepines?
There are many dangerous and unpredictable effects associated with abusing prescription drugs including addiction, overdose and death.
The most common negative effects of benzodiazepines can include:
- muscle weakness,
- loss of coordination and balance,
- memory loss,
- slurred speech,
- constipation, and
- dry mouth.
Some people can also experience:
- euphoria (feeling high),
- restlessness and agitation,
- sudden anxiety,
- irritability and aggressiveness,
- skin reactions, and
- increased pressure in the eyes.
Combining benzodiazepines with alcohol can affect brain activity, cause a person to lose consciousness, stop breathing, and possibly even lead to death.
Longer-term use of benzodiazepines can lead to:
- problems learning or concentrating,
- physical dependence, and
These drugs are not usually prescribed for long-term use because of the risk for developing tolerance, physical dependence or addiction.
Developing tolerance means that more of the drug is needed to get the same effect. This increases the chances of an overdose.
What are the risks of benzodiazepine abuse?
Taking benzodiazepines with or without a prescription can lead to addiction. When benzodiazepine use is suddenly stopped or a much lower dose than usual is taken, withdrawal symptoms may appear.
Drug cravings are the most common symptom of withdrawal. Other milder symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include:
- trouble sleeping,
- stomach upset,
- muscle pain, and
Less common symptoms include:
- shaking and sweating,
- extreme anxiety,
- hallucinations and loss of touch with reality, and
- epileptic seizures.
People who abuse or misuse benzodiazepines are also at higher risk of:
- a drug interaction, which can lead to death
- having their symptoms return and get worse when they stop taking the drug or reduce their dose (rebound effect)
- reacting to the drug in the opposite way you would expect (paradoxical effect)
How is benzodiazepine addiction treated?
There are several treatments available for addiction to benzodiazepines, and they can be combined to be most effective. If you or someone you know is addicted to benzodiazepines, consult a healthcare provider to discuss possible treatment. Ideally, treatment should balance well-being with reducing the risk of withdrawal symptoms.
How can you help prevent benzodiazepine abuse?
You can prevent the possibility of benzodiazepine abuse and addiction by following these guidelines.
Use your medication properly
- Ask your health care provider about your medication, especially if you are unsure about its effects.
- Make sure your health care provider is aware of all the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs to avoid any harmful drug interactions.
- Make sure your health care provider is aware if you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
- Use all medications exactly as directed. This includes taking the right dose at the right time, and not changing your dose or discontinuing use without consulting with your doctor. Avoid crushing your pills, or cutting them open. Crushing or cutting pills can lead to a rapid release of medication, which can cause a fatal overdose.
Keep your medication safe to help prevent abuse by others
- Store benzodiazepines in a safe place, out of the reach of children and teenagers. Keep track of the amount remaining in the package.
- Do not share your medication with anyone else. Not only is this illegal, but may also cause serious harm or death to the other person.
- Return unused medication to the pharmacy for safe disposal. This prevents any possibility of illegal use. It also protects the environment from contamination.
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