Overdoses From This Rx May Be on the Rise

Benzodiazepine overdoses contributed to large portion of US overdoses

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) Opioid overdoses aren’t the only kind of overdose.

In fact, benzodiazepine overdoses may be behind a large part of overdose mortality in the US, a new study found.

“We found that the death rate from overdoses involving benzodiazepines, also known as ‘benzos,’ has increased more than five-fold since 1996 — a public health problem that has gone under the radar,” said lead study author Marcus A. Bachhuber, MD, an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, in a press release. “Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time.”

Recent media coverage has focused on rising numbers of overdoses tied to opioids, a class of painkillers that includes morphine (brand name Avinza), oxycodone (Oxycontin), methadone (Dolophine) and tramadol (ConZip).

But according to Dr. Bachhuber and colleagues, benzodiazepine-related overdoses may also be surging. Thirty-one percent of the nearly 23,000 US overdoses in 2013 were attributable to benzodiazepines, these researchers found.

Benzodiazepines make up a class of sedative drugs that includes diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan).

Between 1996 and 2013, benzodiazepine prescriptions for adults increased from 8.1 million to 13.5 million yearly. During that same period, the rate of overdoses tied to these drugs spiked — from 0.58 deaths to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults, Dr. Bachhuber and team found.

Senior study author Joanna Starrels, MD, an associate professor at Einstein, said in a press release that increased prescriptions could mean more overdoses, but there could also be other factors at play.

“People at high risk for fatal overdose may be obtaining diverted benzodiazepines [i.e., not from medical providers], and we know that combining benzodiazepines with alcohol or drugs — including opioid painkillers — can lead to fatal overdoses,” Dr. Starrels said.

These researchers also noted that taking medications as prescribed and never mixing them with alcohol or other drugs can help prevent benzodiazepine-related complications. Patients should speak with their doctor or pharmacist about how to stay safe while taking these medications.

To study this subject, Dr. Bachhuber and team looked at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the federal Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

This study was published online Feb. 18 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The National Institutes of Health funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
February 17, 2016
Last Updated:
February 18, 2016