Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that are commonly prescribed as a short-term treatment for anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and insomnia.
Although safe and effective when taken as prescribed, benzodiazepine drugs like Xanax or Ativan can be misused for their effects.
Over time, benzodiazepine abuse can lead to severe physical dependendence, addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and other negative health consequences without treatment.
How Do Benzodiazepines Work?
Benzodiazepines are what’s known as central nervous system depressants (CNS). When taken, benzodiazepines depress central nervous system activity, which can affect breathing and physical movement.
Benzodiazepines are known to enhance the effects of the brain chemical GABA. When taken, this can cause calmness, sedation, and reduce anxiety.
How Are Benzodiazepines Abused?
Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” can be abused in several ways. What benzo abuse looks like can vary from person to person, and some signs may be less obvious than others.
What benzodiazepine abuse might look like:
- taking higher doses than prescribed
- taking doses more often
- crushing and snorting benzodiazepines
- injecting benzodiazepines
- drinking alcohol to enhance drug effects
- mixing benzos with other drugs to get high
- taking someone else’s prescription
Chronic benzodiazepine abuse, characterized as a pattern of frequent benzodiazepine misuse, can be dangerous and may harm both physical and mental health.
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Side Effects Of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Benzodiazepines are associated with a number of potential side effects, including drowsiness, relaxation, and dizziness. When misused, these effects can be even more powerful.
Learn more about the general side effects of benzodiazepine abuse.
Short-Term Side Effects Of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepine abuse can cause a range of acute effects on both the mind and body. People who misuse benzos may experience drowsiness, calmness, and other physical and mental side effects.
Learn more about the short-term side effects of benzodiazepine abuse.
Long-Term Effects Of Benzodiazepines
Generally, it’s not recommended that benzodiazepines be prescribed as a long-term treatment. Chronic drug use can lead to benzodiazepine tolerance, dependence, and severe withdrawal.
Long-term use of benzodiazepines has also been associated with chronic effects on cognition, mental health, and increased risk for developing health conditions like dementia in older age.
Read about the long-term effects of benzodiazepine abuse.
Can Benzodiazepines Cause Brain Damage?
Cognitive impairment can occur with chronic benzodiazepine misuse. Chronic benzodiazepine abuse may negatively affect cognitive functions such as memory, concentration, and coordination.
Read more about benzodiazepines and brain damage
Is It Safe To Use Benzodiazepines During Pregnancy?
Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for use during pregnancy, but only if the potential benefits of taking a benzodiazepine drug are believed to outweigh potential risks.
In cases of benzodiazepine abuse, this is different. Any form of drug abuse during pregnancy can pose a serious risk to both the fetus and the person who is pregnant.
Learn more about the safety of using benzodiazepines during pregnancy.
Dangers Of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Misusing benzodiazepines can be dangerous. Both acute and long-term dangers can occur by taking this type of drug in any way other than prescribed by a doctor.
Primary dangers of benzo abuse include:
- severe dependency
- drug addiction
- drug overdose
- increased risk of polysubstance abuse
- worsened mental health conditions
- potential brain damage
Benzodiazepine Overdose Signs And Symptoms
Benzodiazepines are rarely dangerous when taken as prescribed. But misusing benzodiazepines carries a risk of serious dangers, including drug overdose.
Benzodiazepine overdose can occur by taking excessively high doses of a benzodiazepine, or by combining the use of benzodiazepines with other drugs, such as opioids, alcohol, or heroin.
People who overdose on benzodiazepines may experience difficulty breathing, breathe very slowly, become unresponsive, or collapse. If this happens, call 911 right away.
Dangers Of Mixing Benzodiazepines And Other Substances
Mixing benzodiazepines with other substances can have serious effects on both short-term and long-term health, with the potential to affect vital organ function and increase the risk of drug overdose.
Dangerous drug combinations include:
- benzodiazepines and cocaine
- benzodiazepines and heroin
- benzodiazepines and alcohol
- benzodiazepines and methadone
- benzodiazepines and stimulants
- benzodiazepines and opioids
Learn more about the dangers of mixing benzodiazepines with other drugs.
Can Abusing Benzodiazepines Lead To Withdrawal?
One of the most difficult aspects of overcoming benzodiazepine abuse and addiction is the experience of benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Withdrawal refers to a set of symptoms that can occur if someone who is physically dependent on benzodiazepines misses a dose or goes too long without taking another dose.
Withdrawal can be very uncomfortable both physically and psychologically. Getting off a benzodiazepine may require a gradual tapering process or an acute detox program for treatment.
Types Of Benzodiazepines
If you or a loved one is taking benzodiazepines or is concerned about benzodiazepine abuse, it can be helpful to know which drugs are classified as benzodiazepines.
Read more about the different types of benzodiazepines
Short-acting benzodiazepines are substances that have a short duration of action. They kick in fairly quickly and leave the body quicker than long-acting agents.
Common short-acting benzodiazepines include:
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
- triazolam (Halcion)
- midazolam (Versed)
- temazepam (Restoril)
- oxazepam (Serax)
Long-acting benzodiazepines have an extended duration of action. Long-acting benzos remain detectable in a person’s system for longer.
Common long-acting benzodiazepines include:
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
- clorazepate (Tranxene)
Flunitrazepam, also known as Rohypnol, is another long-acting benzodiazepine. Unlike other benzos, however, Rohypnol is illegal to produce, use, or sell in the United States.
Benzodiazepines By Strength
Just as there are benzodiazepines that may work more quickly or more slowly than others, some benzodiazepines are more powerful than other types of benzos.
Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction FAQs
Millions of people struggle with prescription drug abuse. Here, you can find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about benzodiazepine abuse and addiction.
Why Do People Abuse Benzodiazepines?
Why benzodiazepine abuse occurs can vary from person to person. Some people become physically dependent on benzodiazepines, or use them to feel relaxed.
Benzodiazepines can also be misused as a form of self-medication, or to enhance the effects of other common drugs of abuse, like heroin or alcohol.
Are Benzodiazepines Narcotics?
Benzodiazepines are not classified as narcotics. Narcotics is a term that is generally reserved to describe prescription and illicit opioids, such as heroin, Oxycontin, Vicodin, and fentanyl.
Learn more about benzodiazepines and narcotics.
Is There A Benzodiazepine Antidote?
Flumazenil (Romazicon) is one substance that has been identified as a drug capable of blocking the CNS effects of benzodiazepines in the event of a benzodiazepine overdose.
However, its use as a benzodiazepine overdose antidote is controversial. When given to people with benzodiazepine dependence, this may cause precipitated withdrawal or seizures.
Do All Benzodiazepines Show Up The Same On A Drug Test?
Benzodiazepines detection times include:
Call Today To Find Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment
Chronic benzodiazepine abuse can lead to a severe substance use disorder and addiction. If you or a loved one is looking for treatment for benzodiazepine addiction, we may be able to help.
Call our helpline today to find help for yourself or a loved one with a benzodiazepine addiction.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Pregnant Women Report Taking Medicines for Anxiety and Other Mental Health Conditions
- Mayo Clinic — Drug Testing: Benzodiazepines
- MedScape — Benzodiazepine Toxicity Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Prehospital Care, Flumazenil
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — Drug Fact Sheet: Narcotics 2020
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Benzodiazepines and Opioids
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts