Benzodiazepines, sometimes called “benzos” for short, are used as a short-term treatment for insomnia, anxiety, and panic disorders. They can also treat seizures and muscle spasms.
But these medications are not typically prescribed for long-term use. In part, because this can cause severe dependence—which can be both a risk factor for and a sign of substance abuse.
Other long-term effects of extended benzodiazepine use and abuse include the risk of addiction, overdose, effects on mental health, and polysubstance abuse.
Risk Factors For Long Term Effects Of Benzodiazepines
Certain people can be at higher risk for experiencing long-term effects from taking benzodiazepine drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan).
What can increase the risk of long-term effects:
- taking benzodiazepines for longer than one month
- taking benzodiazepines frequently (e.g. daily)
- benzodiazepine misuse
- history of substance abuse
- history of mental illness
- older age
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What Are The Risks Of Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use?
Benzodiazepine drugs are generally prescribed as a short-term treatment, along with behavioral therapy or mental health counseling.
Taking benzodiazepines for a long time or on a regular basis can increase the risk of effects on physical and mental health.
Potential risks of chronic benzodiazepine use include:
Developing Benzodiazepine Tolerance And Dependence
Taking benzodiazepines for more than a few weeks can cause the body to build up a tolerance. This requires taking a higher dose of a drug over time to feel the same strength of effects.
Dependence is a physical and sometimes psychological reliance on a drug that can develop through frequent, chronic use. This can result in a withdrawal syndrome.
Experiencing Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal refers to a set of symptoms that can occur if someone who has become dependent on a drug tries to stop taking it all at once.
Benzodiazepines are notoriously difficult to withdraw from. Stopping this type of drug all at once could trigger severe symptoms, including seizures, hallucinations, and thoughts of suicide.
Benzodiazepines And Effects On The Brain
Chronic benzodiazepine use has been associated with long-term effects on cognitive (brain) health and function, particularly in older adults.
Cognitive effects associated with chronic benzo use include:
- memory problems
- difficulty concentrating
- impaired executive functioning
- dementia (in elderly patients)
Drug abuse, addiction, and older age can increase the risk of experiencing long-term effects on cognition, including cognitive decline and memory problems.
Benzodiazepines And Pregnancy
Benzodiazepines can cross the placental and blood-brain barrier. Taking benzodiazepine drugs while pregnant does come with certain risks, including lower birth-weight and preterm birth.
Benzodiazepines And Hip Fractures
Elderly adults who take or abuse benzodiazepines may be at increased risk for hip fractures, according to some research.
This may be in part influenced by its sedative effects, which can increase the risk for accidental injury and falls.
Benzodiazepines And Mental Health
Although benzodiazepines are prescribed for short-term relief of anxiety and for panic disorder, there’s not significant evidence to suggest there are benefits of long-term use.
Some research suggests the opposite: that chronic benzodiazepine use could potentially have harmful effects on mental health, including depression, rebound anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.
Benzodiazepines And Substance Abuse
Chronic benzodiazepine use and dependence can increase the risk of developing substance use issues, particularly among those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Once dependent, it can be hard to stop taking it. Furthermore, benzodiazepines have also been described as addictive, and may be mixed with other drugs to enhance their effects.
Common signs of substance abuse include:
- taking higher doses than prescribed
- taking doses more often
- using multiple drugs to enhance effects
- taking pills from someone else’s prescription
- going to multiple doctors to get prescriptions
- dramatic changes in appearance or behavior
Long-Term Effects Of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Benzodiazepine abuse is a serious concern. Chronic drug abuse can increase the risk of developing various cancers, organ damage, and other harmful effects on health and well-being.
Risks of chronic substance abuse include:
- liver and kidney damage
- brain damage
- effects on employment status
- difficulty maintaining close relationships
- polysubstance abuse
- poor mental health
- drug overdose
Substance abuse is treatable. If someone is struggling with prescription drug misuse, outpatient counseling, mental health treatment, or an intensive treatment program may be recommended.
Treatment For Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction
If you or a loved one are concerned about the long-term effects of chronic benzodiazepine abuse, we may be able to help you find a treatment program that’s right for you.
Common treatments for benzodiazepine addiction include:
Call our helpline today to find treatment options for benzodiazepine abuse and addiction near you.
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.
- American Family Physician — Risks Associated with Long-Term Benzodiazepine Use
- BMC Psychiatry — Association between benzodiazepines and suicide risk: a matched case-control study
- The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry — The effects of benzodiazepines on cognition
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Alprazolam
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed — Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed — Benzodiazepines, Z-drugs and the risk of hip fracture: A systematic review and meta-analysis