Substance Abuse

A Quick Fact Sheet About Benzodiazepines

One of the most commonly abused substances in recent years is a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. In this article, we will discuss relevant information about the drug, some common names and brands of benzodiazepines, side effects, and dangers of abuse.

What are Benzodiazepines?

This drug is primarily used to treat anxiety, but can also be effective in treating other conditions. It affects the neurotransmitters in the brain that is responsible for communicating with other nerves.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter responsible for suppressing the activity of nerves. It is believed that the excessive activity of the nerves may be the cause of anxiety and other psychological disorders which benzodiazepines help in reducing the activity of the nerves in the central nervous system, thus enhancing the effects of GABA.

Benzodiazepines are used for treating anxiety and panic, seizures and insomnia. These can also be used for:

  • Panic attacks
  • General anesthesia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Depression
  • Sedation prior to surgery or diagnostic procedures
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Drug-associated agitation

Differences between benzodiazepines

There are various combinations of benzodiazepines that help in treating the conditions stated above. The difference lies on the onset of action of each kind.

  • Clorazepate (Tranxene) and triazolam (Halcion) are short-acting agents. The duration of its action is from 3-8 hours.
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin) and alprazolam (Xanax) have immediate onsets of action.
  • Oxazepam (Serax) has a slow onset.
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and diazepam (Valium) are long-acting agents with duration of action between 1-3 days.
  • Diazepam and clorazepate usually start to effect within 30-60 minutes.

Benzodiazepines may just have one action. However, there are specific benzodiazepines prescribed depending on the condition of the patient. The most commonly used benzodiazepines to treat certain conditions are as follows:

  • Diazepam is used to relax the muscles.
  • Chlordiazepoxide is used to control agitations during alcohol withdrawal.
  • Midazolam is used in anesthesia.
  • Alprazolam and Diazepam are both used in treating anxiety disorders.
  • Estazolam and Triazolam are used to treat insomnia.
  • Chorazepate and Lorazepam are used for seizure disorders.

Side effects of Benzodiazepines

There is a need for patients to be aware of the possible adverse effect of benzodiazepines so that they will be able to know how to best handle the situation once the medication takes effect.

Here are the common side effects of taking the drug:

  • Dizziness
  • Sedation
  • Weakness
  • Unsteadiness
  • Depressive mood
  • Loss of orientation
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Memory impairment
  • Aggression
  • Excitement

Caution should be taken in taking benzodiazepines because of its addictive property. Abruptly stopping the use of this may cause withdrawal symptoms which may include agitation, a feeling of loss of worth and insomnia.

If this drug has been used for a long time and has suddenly been stopped, it may cause seizure, muscle cramping, vomiting, tremors and sweating. In order to prevent this from happening, the dose should be gradually decreased.

Benzodiazepine Reaction with other Medications

Benzodiazepines when taken with other medications may produce adverse reactions.  Reduced elimination of benzodiazepines in the liver may result in the increase in blood circulation and side effects of benzodiazepines.

Antacids may affect the rate of absorption of benzodiazepines in the intestine. However, if administered separately and in between several hours, this may prevent any interaction.

The Dangers of Benzodiazepine Addiction

Individuals who may have become dependent with the use of benzodiazepines usually take another drug to increase its potency. It is usually combined with diazepam and alprazolam due to its rapid onset. Prolonged use of these significantly increases the risk of addiction, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

Each year, there is a significant number of cases involving overdoses of benzodiazepines that lead to hospitalization, and in some cases even death. The antidote used for benzodiazepine overdose is flumazenil, which is injected intravenously. To help aid during withdrawal symptoms with benzodiazepine abuse, diazepam is injected intravenously.

[Image courtesy of Literaturegeek via Wikimedia Creative Commons]

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