Anti-anxiety drugs combined with opioids can be deadly

A single dose pill of Valium is displayed on March 2

A single dose pill of Valium is displayed on March 2

Anti-anxiety sedatives such as Ativan, Xanax and Valium may not be as safe as once thought.

Known as benzodiazepines, the drugs work like sedatives. They’re often prescribed when a patient is suffering from an anxiety attack, insomnia or even going through drug withdrawal. They’re meant to be used a short-term solution.

“A lot of information, at least that I was taught about benzodiazepines, is that they’re a relatively safe medication,” said Dr. Marcus Bachhuber. “And they are, when taken by themselves.”

Bachhuber and a team of researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine examined data and found, from 1996 to 2013, overdose deaths from these drugs shot up by a factor of four.

Bachhuber cited “risky prescribing” as one of the culprits. For instance, while one doctor prescribed Xanax to a patient, another prescribed an opioid, such as Vicodin, he explained. That opioid-benzodiazepine combination substantially increases the risk of overdose and death.

“And taking with either of those has synergistic effects in terms of respiratory depression,” said Bachhuber. “Slowing your breathing down, so that’s how a lot of people overdose.”

The same goes for mixing them with alcohol.

“We also thought it was interesting that prescriptions for these medicines have been increasing at a time when more options are available than have ever been available before,” he said.

Drugs like Zoloft and Lexapro are all safer than benzodiazepines, he said. And talk therapy, which has proved effective in the treatment of anxiety, has no adverse medical side effects.

The good news, said Bachhuber, is that when opioid overdoses plateaued in 2010, overdoses from these drugs did the same.

The next step, he said, is to find out why the risky prescribing is happening, and look for ways to reduce or stop it.

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