Anxiety Drug Overdoses in US Hit Record Levels

March 13, 2016

Prescription drug overdoses have become alarmingly common in the U.S., with opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, among the drugs most frequently making headlines.

New research shows another class of drugs — benzodiazepines or “benzos” — is rising in the ranks of overdose deaths, however.

Prescriptions for such drugs, which include brand names Valium, Ativan and Xanax, tripled from 1996 to 2013, but this doesn’t fully account for the uptick in overdoses, which quadrupled during that time period.

Anxiety Drug Overdoses Hit Record Levels

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and multiple-cause-of-death data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to describe trends in benzodiazepine prescriptions and overdose deaths.

For starters, they found that the number of U.S. prescriptions for the drugs rose from 4.1 percent in 1996 to 5.6 percent in 2013 — a 37 percent increase.

Further, the rate of overdose deaths increased from 0.58 per 100,000 adults at the start of the study to about 3 per 100,000 adults at the end, which represented a more than 500 percent increase.

As for why the rate of overdose deaths rose faster than the rate of prescriptions, Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, one of the study’s authors, told STAT News, “Our guess is that people are using these prescriptions in a riskier way.”

Benzodiazepines are highly addictive and especially dangerous when taken long term.

The number of pills prescribed to each adult increased over the study period, for instance, which suggests Americans may be taking higher doses or taking the drugs for longer periods, both of which increase the risk of overdose.

Combining the drugs, which act as sedatives and are often prescribed not only for anxiety but also for insomnia, with alcohol is also risky, as is using the drugs along with opioids.

Dr. David Juurlink, head of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, told STAT News, “Prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines together is like putting gasoline on a fire,” and added:

“Benzodiazepines are grossly overprescribed … and many people don’t necessarily benefit from them.”

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