According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 115 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.
Prescription pain medication, heroin, and fentanyl are widely to blame, and have put our country in a state of national crisis.
However, a lesser known drug is also at fault for many of these fatal overdoses. Benzodiazepines (benzos) contribute to 30% of opioid related deaths. Benzos are sedatives typically prescribed for conditions such as insomnia and anxiety that, when taken in combination with opioids, greatly increase the chance of a deadly overdose.
In 2015, 23% of those who died of overdoses tested positive for both benzos and opioids, as both of these dangerous drugs are sedatives that suppress breathing.
In fact, a study in North Carolina found that patients taking both opioids and benzos were ten times more likely to experience a deadly overdose than those taking opioids alone.
Despite these frightening statistics, doctors continued to prescribe both benzos and opioids simultaneously at alarming rates until 2016 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against the dangers of using these drugs together.
It was during this time that both drugs were labelled with an FDA “black box” warning.
Increase in Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Overdose
Even though benzodiazepines are still lesser known than opioids, benzo prescriptions have skyrocketed since over the past twenty years.
In 2013, 13.5 million adults filled a benzo prescription, which is a 67% increase over the 8.1 million adults who filled benzo prescriptions 1996.
Despite new guidelines designed to inhibit the prescription of both benzodiazepine and opioids to a single patient, benzos continue to stay out of the conversation surrounding deadly drugs.
Opioids have long been the center of attention as prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl claimed the lives of over 42,000 people in 2016, but benzo overdoses are on still the rise.
In 2015, 8,791 people died due to benzo overdoses, a dramatic increase since 1999 when there were only 1,135.
These statistics are not lost on the top players in the benzodiazepine production market as the makers of both Valium and Xanax have committed to educate consumers and ensure the drugs are taken properly and safely.
But what makes benzodiazepines so dangerous? Like opioids, many benzos are prescribed to patients to alleviate conditions such as anxiety and insomnia.
However, benzos can quickly lead to increased use and dependency as the patient builds a tolerance.
Benzo Dependence and Addiction
According Christy Huff, a woman who took Xanax for sleeplessness, all it took was three weeks of drug use to develop a benzo dependency.
While her doctor advised her to quit cold turkey, Huff found herself suffering from withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia and weight loss, and at risk of more dangerous symptoms such as seizures or death.
Today, after three years of dependency, she is slowly weaning herself off the drug, and expects it will be another year before she is free from her addiction.
As benzodiazepines continue to fly under the radar of known deadly drugs, experts warn doctors to inform patients of the possible consequences of using Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin.
While there is still a way to go in the fight against benzo addiction and overdose, patients must remain informed.
It is crucial that patients inform their doctor of all other drugs they are taking, and consider all alternative treatment options before resorting to a prescription.
Benzos should never be quit cold turkey or used long-term, so while it is the responsibility of doctors to prescribe more carefully, it is also up to the patient to understand the risk involved and use careful judgement before taking benzodiazepines.