Benzodiazepine Addiction: Symptoms, Signs and Side Effects
By The Recovery Village Ridgefield
Editor Jonathan Strum | Medically Reviewed By Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Last Updated: June 1, 2023
Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Benzodiazepines, or ‘benzos,’ are depressant drugs that have a relaxing effect. They are commonly prescribed to help with anxiety or trouble sleeping. Although they can be effective for short-term symptom relief, the sedating effects of benzos also make them a target for misuse.
Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Valium, are often misused by individuals to help them relax, come down off of stimulant substances or avoid withdrawal symptoms. Misuse of these drugs can have many short- and long-term side effects. There are various benzodiazepine addiction signs that can point to a need for treatment.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Misuse or long-term use of benzodiazepines can be associated with unpleasant physical symptoms as well as changes in mood or behavior. Some of the key signs of benzodiazepine misuse can include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Irritability or aggression
- Changes in personality
- Difficulty thinking or remembering
- Lack of motivation
- Withdrawal symptoms
People who are misusing benzodiazepines may or may not have a prescription. Misuse can include taking too much at once or taking a high dose of benzos on a daily basis. These symptoms of benzodiazepine use can increase the risk for other substance use disorders.
Benzodiazepine Side Effects
When used for medical purposes and in appropriate doses, benzodiazepines can improve a patient’s symptoms and quality of life. However, there are several benzodiazepine side effects that are important to consider when taking this medication. Side effects for benzodiazepines can be short- or long-term in nature.
Short-term side effects of benzo use can often be related to low drug tolerance when starting a new medication or taking an inappropriate dose. Short-term effects of benzodiazepine use include:
- Slurring of speech
- Memory problems
- Over-sedation or feeling ‘heavy’
- Increased risk of falling
- Double vision
- Feelings of euphoria or isolation
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Ideally, benzodiazepines should be prescribed for a short period. During this time, short-term side effects will likely subside. However, there are several long-term effects of benzodiazepines if use extends beyond the recommended guidelines. These can include:
- Memory problems
- Personality changes
- Irritability or aggression
- Weight gain
- Anxiety and depression
- Withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped
To reduce the risk of these benzodiazepine side effects, it’s recommended that prescriptions should not last longer than four weeks. If possible, benzos should be taken on an ‘as needed’ basis rather than daily to avoid related risks.
Rates of benzodiazepine misuse have been rising, and benzo misuse often co-occurs with misuse of opioids and alcohol. Mixing drugs and alcohol can be dangerous and even fatal.
Mixing benzos with other prescription drugs, particularly opioids like OxyContin, can significantly increase the risk of unintentional overdoses or death. Combining opioids and benzos is often done to enhance the ‘high’ experienced by taking opioids. Mixing benzos and alcohol is often done to increase the sedative effect.
Combining benzos with opioids or alcohol can slow central nervous system activity, which can fatally slow breathing. Drug interactions can also increase suicide ideation.
Benzos might also be harmful to patients who are being treated for other psychiatric conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder. This is because it may worsen their symptoms or impact the effects of their medication. For prescription use, possible drug interactions for benzos should always be discussed.
Taking Benzos While Pregnant
For women who are taking prescription benzodiazepines or misusing the substance, there are important risks to fetal safety to consider.
Taking benzodiazepines while pregnant can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. The misuse of benzos can also impact fetal growth and development and increases risk of death.
Researchers are not sure exactly how risky taking benzos during pregnancy is, but it is important to be cautious during this time. Withdrawal from benzos is also not advised during pregnancy, as withdrawal can impact the physical and mental health of the mother and put the fetus at risk.
If pregnant, women can discuss safe medication alternatives to benzodiazepines during pregnancy. If they are planning to get pregnant, they should discuss withdrawing from benzos before getting pregnant.
Signs of Benzodiazepine Overdose
While it is possible to overdose on benzodiazepine alone, the risk of overdose increases significantly when benzos are combined with other drugs or alcohol.
There are several key benzodiazepine overdose symptoms that signal the need for urgent care, including:
- Extremely drowsy state
- Shallow or ineffective breathing
- Altered mental state
- Slurred speech
The signs of overdose may look different if someone has also taken other drugs or combined benzos and alcohol. The risk of overdosing depends on a person’s size, drug tolerance, age and dose taken.
Benzodiazepine overdose treatment can be lifesaving and should be sought quickly. Patients who have overdosed will often require support breathing, close monitoring and medical assistance. In some cases, a drug called Flumazenil might be used to reverse the sedative effects of benzos. However, this treatment can also be risky.
The first step to recovery is reaching out. If you or someone you care about is misusing or dependent on benzodiazepines, The Recovery Village Ridgefield can help. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can work well for your situation.
Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.
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