Overdose deaths from sedatives known as benzodiazepines (BZD), sometimes called “benzos”, are on the rise, according to a new report.
In the new study – published Thursday (Feb. 18) in the American Journal of Public Health – found that in the United States the death rate from benzodiazepine overdose has increased five times since 1996.
Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs, which include Alprazolam (available as the trade name Xanax) and benzodiazepine diazepam (Valium). To treat chronic pain, the drugs are sometimes used along with opioids.
Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said that overdoses on benzodiazepines represent a public health concern. Based on the study results – which show that benzodiazepine overdoses have increased compared with the rate of overdoses from other drugs – people have been taking those medications in a riskier way, Dr. Bachhuber explained.
The researchers analysed data on the use of benzodiazepines in the United States from 1996 to 2013. Over the eighteen year period, they found that the number of benzodiazepine prescriptions increased from about eight million prescriptions in 1996 to more than thirteen million in 2013 – which would equate to a sixty-seven percent increase.
Moreover, the researchers found that the death rate from benzodiazepine overdose has also increased more than five times during the study period – from about 0.58 deaths per one hundred thousand people in 1996 to approximately 3.14 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013.
The increase may have something to do with higher quantities of benzodiazepines being prescribed to people, the researchers said. Patients could also be taking higher doses of the medication each day, getting them from sources other than doctors, and taking them for longer periods of time. These might all add up to the increase of overdoses, the researchers explained.
Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, the study’s co-author and a professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said that combining benzodiazepines with opioids (powerful painkillers) increases the risk of an overdose even more. Also, benzodiazepines combined with alcohol can increase the overdose risk as well, according to Dr. Cunningham.
People should be aware that the death rates from benzodiazepine overdoses are also increasing – even though the opioid overdoses have attracted a lot of attention from the media, Dr. Cunningham stated.
Overdoses of benzodiazepines can be prevented, the researchers said. Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed for the long-term treatment of anxiety disorders. However, in some cases, psychological therapies are recommended as the first-line treatment options and benzodiazepines are indicated as a second- or third-line treatment option, the researchers said.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – an executive non-departmental public body of the Department of Health in the United Kingdom – long-term use of benzodiazepines for panic disorder does not have long-term efficacy, is an unlicensed indication, and is not recommended by clinical guidelines. In 1977 benzodiazepines were the most prescribed medications worldwide.
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