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FINDING HOPE: Benzodiazepines contributing to deadly opioid overdoses

Posted at 7:27 AM, Feb 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 00:16:18-05

BOISE, Idaho — You've probably heard of Xanax, Valium or Klonopin. They're all benzodiazepines: a type of drug used to treat anxiety, panic disorders, sleeping issues, and even seizures. When taken for a short time under the care of a physician, they can be helpful, but when abused, they can be deadly.

"Doctors need [benzodiazepines] for all kinds of services," Optum Idaho medical director Dr. Ron Larsen said. "Xanax, for instance, one that gets abused the most, is very helpful with nausea at cancer centers. So people depend on this medicine. The difficulty is, now, over the last 15 years or so, teenagers have seemingly gotten involved with these benzodiazepines."

Dr. Larsen says that's lead to a 54% increase in teenage drug overdoses over that same period of time.

According to the CDC, data collected from 25 states shows 63% of opioid overdose deaths involved some other type of drug. One-third of those deaths involved benzodiazepines.

"They're a medicine that is like alcohol," Dr. Larsen explained. "They're taken as a pill. They're called minor tranquilizers, and they're actually habit-forming like alcohol."

Benzos can enhance the effects of opioid painkillers, giving the combination a highly addictive quality. When combined, breathing is significantly suppressed, leading to a lack of oxygen to the brain, and even death.

"They relax you; that's they're prescribed use," Dr. Larsen said. "After that, though, they're almost like alcohol, too. You can become intoxicated; you can look intoxicated, and you can have trouble walking. So if you're on a benzodiazepine and drive your car, you can be pulled over for a DUI, when in fact, it might be a benzodiazepine."

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Dr. Larsen says the medical community has improved practices over the past two decades, learning benzodiazepines are best used for less than two weeks at a time.

"So if you're in the hospital and your arm and your leg are in a cast, and you have to go home and sleep, up to two weeks worth could help," Dr. Larsen explained.

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A lot of people may wonder why a doctor would prescribe an opioid and a benzodiazepine if they have these known dangers, but the two drugs are used to treat different conditions and could be prescribed unknowingly by different doctors.

For example, a person who suffers from chronic pain could have a long-term prescription for Vicodin, then receive a Xanax prescription from a therapist to treat anxiety. That's why it's so important to talk with your doctors about any other medications you are already taking before starting a new prescription.

If you're not sure what type of drugs are considered benzodiazepines, they often end in "-am", like Alprazolam, Clonazepam, Lorazepam, and Diazepam.