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Benzodiazepine Overdoses Have Quadrupled Since 1996

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

March 18, 2019

Benzodiazepines are psychoactive medications that have a high potential for abuse and addiction. Despite the high risk, prescriptions for these medications have grown over the past years. Increased usage of these drugs has also led to the overdose rate quadrupling. Learn more about benzo overdose and how you can help others.

Benzodiazepine, or “benzos.” are a class of psychoactive medications, including Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, Valium, and barbiturates. When taken as directed, these drugs are intended to help counteract the effects of moderate to severe anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and ill feelings before anesthesia.

In the past 20 years, prescriptions for these medications have tripled. While this is indicative of mental health awareness in the United States, the resulting overdose epidemic raises questions regarding the use of Benzodiazepine.

Who Takes Benzos?

Benzodiazepine medications cover a multitude of symptoms in adults. People suffering from moderate to severe anxiety and panic attacks are likely to receive benzos for fast relief. Before surgery, patients may be given a dose for sedation and general anesthesia. Drug and alcohol withdrawals can also be relieved through benzodiazepine therapy. Patients in different age ranges receive these medications for long- and short-term use. Additionally:

  • A study in 2008 revealed that patients 5 percent of patients aged 18-80 years old received benzodiazepine prescription that year.
  • It was found that 2.6 percent of patients in the 18-35 year age range were prescribed benzos. 14.7 percent of these patients were given the drug for long-term use.
  • Studies have shown a higher concentration of benzodiazepine prescriptions between the ages of 65-80, covering nearly 9 percent of all patients in that age range. 31.4 percent of those prescriptions were prescribed for long-term use.
  • Adults prescribed benzodiazepines have grown by 67 percent, from 8 million to nearly 13.5 million over the past 20 years.
  • Doses have also increased, possibly due to increased tolerance from long-term use.
  • Women are nearly twice as likely to receive the drug from a physician.

It is noted that adults in the 65- to 80-year-old age range are over three times more likely to receive the drug than younger adults, despite the especially high risks to respiratory health. In addition to prescribed medications for patients, another large portion of benzo use exists outside of a prescription. These medications are purchased on the street for recreational use, which can further increase the likelihood of overdose.

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Overdose And Benzodiazepine

Benzodiazepine is responsible for 1/3 of overdose deaths. The CDC suggests that overdose deaths involving benzodiazepine has risen from .58/100,000 in 1999, to a staggering 3.07/100,000 in 2013. The rise in prescribed benzos are correlated to these findings, as well as the accessibility for those not prescribed the drug. Overdose death is more likely when taken with other substances, such as opiates and alcohol. Some symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose include:

  • Labored breathing and loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Weakness, and pale, clammy skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Fever, chills, and impaired vision
  • Coma
  • Weakness

Benzodiazepines are linked to many accidental overdoses, and are a common method of suicide. Doctors are prescribing more of these drugs than ever. Due to the increasing use and overdose of benzos in modern medicine, it is now more important than ever to speak with a physician about your benzodiazepine treatment.

Specific Medications

Physicians and pharmacists make a point of covering drug facts with patients, including risks and benefits. In light of the increased cases of overdose, it may be helpful to visit the prescribing physician to touch base. Understanding the risks and benefits of medications taken can significantly lower risk in patients. These specific benzodiazepine medications are commonly used:

  • Anxiety disorders: Xanax, Librium, Tranxene, Valium, and Midazolam
  • Seizure disorders: Klonopin, Tranxene, Ativan, Onfi, and Valium
  • Insomnia: Prosom, Dalmane, Doral, Restoril, and Halcion
  • Anesthesia: Versed, Ativan, and Valium
  • Muscle relaxation: Valium is most commonly used
  • Alcohol withdrawal: Librium is often used

Even with proper dosing, the disorienting qualities of benzodiazepine can lead to accidental doubling, or even tripling of doses. It is important to keep an eye on benzo dosing and track medications when taken. Keeping a roster, or pill organizer can help when overdose is a concern. Talk to the administering physician about additional steps to prevent accidental overdose.

Benzodiazepine Overdose: A Preventable Occurrence

When used as directed, benzos can be beneficial for patients on a long- or short-term treatment plan for various ailments. When these drugs are taken incorrectly, it is possible that overdose, or even overdose death, can occur. It is crucial to seek guidance from the administering physician if you are concerned about any medication you are taking, and reach out for help if abuse is suspected.

We Can Help

Benzodiazepine overdoses have quadrupled over the past 20 years. If you believe that you, or someone you know is at risk for overdose, the caring staff at is here to help. We can assist you with further information, as well as guidance for prescription management. Contact us today.

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