Xanax is prescribed for people who suffer from anxiety or panic disorders, including depression-induced anxiety. It’s also prescribed for insomnia. As a Schedule IV drug of the Controlled Substances Act, it has a potential for abuse.
The sense of calm and well-being Xanax brings can make a person want to take more of it or combine it with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol or opioids. It’s not unusual for people who are already suffering from addiction to heroin or methadone to abuse Xanax as well.
Unfortunately, abusing Xanax in high doses or with other substances can increase the risk of a Xanax overdose, which can be very dangerous to a person’s health if left untreated. Because of this, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of Xanax overdose and how to get treatment, as well as how Xanax works and affects a person’s brain and body.
How Xanax Works In The Brain And Body
Xanax, whose generic name is alprazolam, is a type of benzodiazepine. Benzodiazepines are depressants that slow down the central nervous system and may cause sleepiness. They were developed to replace barbiturates because abuse of barbiturates had become too widespread.
Benzodiazepines can only be obtained legally through a prescription, and Xanax is one of the most commonly abused benzodiazepines. Patients who use Xanax often illicitly get prescriptions from different doctors or even forge prescriptions. Teens who become addicted to Xanax sometimes steal it from their parents’ medicine cabinet.
Benzodiazepines and opioids are both central nervous system depressants, but benzodiazepines work by binding to the GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, receptors in the person’s brain. GABA inhibits the activity of nerve cells.
Xanax is best used short-term. Patients who use the drug long-term are most likely to become addicted to it. It is taken orally as pills that come in 0.25, 0.5, 1 or 2-milligram dosages.
They are different shapes and colors depending on the dosage. Patients usually feel the effects after about an hour or two, and the drug stays in the body between 12 and 15 hours. It takes about two weeks for the patient to see improvement in their anxiety disorder.
How Xanax Abuse Leads To Overdose
A person who suffers from a Xanax addiction needs to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect because the body develops a tolerance for the drug.
A high dosage of Xanax that may cause a fatal overdose in a person who has never had the drug may not affect an addicted individual at all. However, even an addicted person can take too much of the drug, or, more likely, combine it with alcohol or another drug to enhance its effects. This can lead to an overdose.
Factors That Affect A Xanax Overdose
A person is most at risk for a Xanax overdose when they take it with other drugs, especially alcohol or opioids. This is why a person who is contemplating taking Xanax for anxiety should tell their doctor if they drink heavily or if they are on other medications before Xanax is prescribed.
Other factors that affect a Xanax overdose are the patient’s weight, age, and overall health. People who are older have an increased risk of suffering an overdose because their systems are more sensitive to the drug than the systems of younger people. This is also true of patients who have liver disease.
Signs And Symptoms Of A Xanax Overdose
Xanax overdose signs and symptoms can be mild or severe and range from physical and psychological symptoms to changes in behavior.
Mild physical Xanax overdose signs are:
- slurred speech
- slowed reflexes
- tachycardia, though some people have a slowed heart rate
- clammy skin
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Severe physical Xanax overdose symptoms are:
- a weak, rapid pulse
- chest pains
- shallow, difficult breathing
- possible death
The psychological symptoms of an alprazolam overdose include:
- suicidal thoughts
The behavioral symptoms of a Xanax overdose include:
- difficulty speaking
- sleepiness to the point the person is unresponsive
- moodiness, including irritability
- talkativeness that’s unusual for the patient
- vivid or frightening dreams
- memory loss
What To Do For A Xanax Overdose
The one piece of good news about Xanax overdose is that it is rarely fatal, especially if the patient receives medical care in time. About 31 percent of all deaths from prescription drug poisoning involve benzodiazepines such as Xanax, though usually when the drug is abused with another central nervous system depressant, like opioids.
Seek Help Immediately
If you believe someone is overdosing on Xanax, it’s important to call 911 right away. Then, tell the responder how much Xanax the patient took, when they took it, and their weight, age, and height. It’s important to be as honest as possible to give the person the best chance at a full recovery.
Stabilize The Person And Remain With Them Until Help Arrives
Stay with the individual during their overdose and pay attention to their breathing, which may slow down greatly after an overdose. Remove anything the person is wearing around their neck, and make sure their airway is unobstructed. If the person stops breathing, it may be necessary to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until help arrives.
*This article is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice or used in lieu of seeking medical care. Anyone who is experiencing overdose should be taken to a hospital or other urgent care medical facility for treatment as soon as possible.
Treatment Options For Xanax Overdose
Xanax overdose treatment begins when the person is finally under medical care. Their stomach is often pumped, or their entire GI tract is flushed, though these treatment modalities are considered controversial among some doctors.
Patients are given IV fluids to help wash the drug from the body, and they may also be given dopamine or norepinephrine if their blood pressure has crashed. A slowed heart rate is also treated with norepinephrine or atropine.
Some doctors give the patient flumazenil as part of Xanax overdose treatment. Flumazenil is another benzodiazepine that halts the life-threatening aspects of alprazolam overdose.
Flumazenil must be administered with care, especially if the patient has been taking benzodiazepines for a long time, since seizures and heart attacks are side effects of this medication.
It is most often used in combination with stomach pumping, IV fluids, and assisted respiration. Since flumazenil has a short half-life, a patient may need more than one dosage.
Unlike the way some other prescription drug overdoses are treated, patients who have a Xanax overdose are not given activated charcoal. Doctors believe the risk of breathing it into the lungs is too great.
Following emergency medical treatment for a Xanax overdose, it is important to seek followup care for the larger problem: Xanax addiction. A number of drug rehab programs exist to treat addictions to benzodiazepines like Xanax. Those who struggle with benzodiazepine abuse should seek help as soon as possible to avoid risk of continued overdose and other adverse effects.
To learn more about Xanax rehab programs, or to find a rehab facility that meets your individual needs, speak to one of our addiction treatment specialists today.
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.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Increasing Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1996–2013
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Alprazolam