Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a class of medication used to treat anxiety, panic disorder, insomnia, muscle spasms, seizures, and other medical conditions.
They first emerged on the market in the 1960s, mostly as a replacement for barbiturates – a similar class of medication that turned out to be addictive with a considerable risk for overdose. Unfortunately, though very effective for short-term use, benzos also have the potential to be addictive and can cause serious short- and long-term health problems if abused. They can also result in overdose, especially if mixed with other intoxicants like alcohol.
Benzo and Alcohol Overdose
Like alcohol, benzodiazepines are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. The CNS controls the heart, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and other essential functions. When the central nervous system gets depressed, all of these systems slow down. If two kinds of CNS depressants are mixed, this effect is amplified, creating a potentially dangerous situation. If breathing and heart rates slow down too much, it can cause a condition called hypoxia in which not enough oxygen is reaching the brain, resulting in rapid cell death. If not treated in time, brain damage, coma, and eventual death can occur.
Signs of a benzodiazepine overdose include:
- Slurred speech
- Blurred vision
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty breathing
Overdose rates from benzos have been on the rise in recent years, reaching around 8,000 deaths in 2014. Many of these involved alcohol use.
The Prescription Pill Abuse Epidemic
Unfortunately, both benzodiazepine abuse and mixing alcohol with other drugs are common activities considering the substantial risk involved. Though they shouldn’t result in addiction if taken for a short-term period as directed, benzos do have addiction potential. After taking medications like Xanax and Valium for a few weeks or more, people begin to develop a tolerance to the drugs, meaning they need higher and higher doses in order to achieve the same effect. If they aren’t treated some other way and their problem continues, they may begin to abuse the drug in order to control their anxiety, sleep issues, or other medical problems.
Like other prescription medications, there’s also a national problem with benzos being abused by people who do not have a prescription. Individuals often get drugs like these from friends or family members who have been given more than they need by doctors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 52 million people in the US over the age of 12 have abused a prescription drug at some point in life.
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Though overdose is the most immediate concern when mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines, there are potential long-term effects as well. Addiction itself, if left untreated, results in heavier and heavier use over time. Constant use of depressants, and the resulting slowing of the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, can leave a person vulnerable to respiratory infections and cause chronic constipation.
Long-term use of benzos has also been associated with negative effects on the brain. Brain scans done on those who had been taking these drugs for long periods of time showed actual brain damage and shrinkage in certain areas, though findings are preliminary. Alcohol is also associated with a reduction in white matter in the brain and a loss in certain motor functions.
Mixing intoxicants of any kind tends to be dangerous, and the short- and long-term effects can be unpredictable. It can also be an indication of an addiction. If an addiction to either alcohol or benzos is suspected, treatment should be sought out as soon as possible in order to avoid serious health problems and overdose. If a person is dependent on either alcohol or benzodiazepines, medical detox is required since withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.