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Benzodiazepine Overdose Symptoms and Addiction Treatment

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Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” are prescription medications used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal, and seizures.1,2 Benzos were once prescribed for the short-term management of insomnia, but they are rarely used for this medical purpose anymore. Examples of these sedatives include Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin. The medications fall under the category of central nervous system (CNS) depressants because they slow activity in the brain by increasing the inhibitory effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This elicits a calming, anxiety-reducing effect in the user.2

In some cases, benzodiazepines can be harmful, especially when they are taken without a prescription or used in ways other than prescribed.1 In fact, non-medical use of benzodiazepines is an increasing concern. In 2014, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed that 8.8% of Americans reported abusing benzodiazepines at some point in their lifetimes.3 The number of emergency department visits in the United States for benzodiazepine misuse and abuse increased by 139% between 2004 and 2010.4

Man holding various benzo medications

Misusing or abusing benzodiazepines can cause significant harm and may result in a potentially fatal overdose.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of a benzodiazepine overdose will allow you to recognize life-threatening situations and get proper medical help.

Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Overdose

A benzodiazepine overdose can occur when a person takes more than their recommended dose or combines the sedative with another substance, such as alcohol.

Benzodiazepine overdose symptoms may differ from person to person and depend on a variety of factors. Some of the signs of an overdose include:5

  • Trouble breathing or inability to breathe.
  • Bluish fingernails and lips.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Extreme dizziness.
  • Blurred vision or double vision.
  • Weakness.
  • Uncoordinated muscle movements.
  • Tremors.
  • Profoundly altered mental status.
  • Stupor.
  • Coma.

In rare cases, a person may have serious complications following a benzodiazepine overdose. These may be a result of the respiratory distress, lack of oxygenated blood, or physical trauma caused by a loss of consciousness and/or a period of extended immobility on a hard surface (e.g. the ground). These complications can include:5

  • Pneumonia.
  • Muscle damage.
  • Brain damage.
  • Death.

Fatal benzodiazepine overdoses are rare when a substance is being used on its own.6 However, certain factors can put users at higher risk of serious consequences during an overdose.


Risk Factors for Benzo Overdose

Various factors increase a user’s chances of a benzo overdose, including:

In 2010, there were more than 400,000 recorded emergency room visits due to benzodiazepine misuse in the United States.4

Some benzodiazepine users develop tolerances to the drug over time. Tolerance occurs when a person no longer experiences the same effects with the same dose of the drug. In fact, benzodiazepines may be less effective after 4 to 6 months of daily use.6 As a result, a user may take more of the drug in an attempt to achieve the desired effects, thus increasing their risk of overdose. Prescription users may mistakenly assume that it is safe to take larger amounts of a drug without consulting their doctors. This is not the case, and it is important to always use prescription medications as prescribed and discuss any other drugs you are taking with your doctor.

dangers of mixing alcohol and benzos

What to Do in an Emergency

If you notice signs or symptoms of a benzodiazepine overdose in another person, call 911 immediately.

Securing medical attention in a timely manner is important in order to reduce the likelihood of adverse consequences and death.

When calling 911, it is helpful to provide as much information about the person as possible, including:5

  • The person’s age and weight.
  • Any signs and symptoms the user is exhibiting or has complained of.
  • The name of the drug(s) they’ve used.
  • The amount of the drug(s) taken and at what time.
  • Where the person obtained the drugs.

Overdose victims will be transported to the hospital, where they may be treated with respiratory support, intravenous fluids, and/or medications to reverse the effects of the overdose.5

what to do drug overdose

A medication commonly used in an emergency setting is flumazenil.7 This drug is a specific benzodiazepine receptor antagonist and reverses the sedative effects of benzodiazepines in the event of an overdose.7 Flumazenil can be administered to help an unconscious person regain consciousness or prevent the recurrence of unconsciousness or coma.7 Furthermore, it is a reliable diagnostic tool for distinguishing a benzodiazepine overdose from a polydrug overdose or a coma caused by other medical factors.7 This medication must be used with caution when it is administered to someone in suspected overdose, and the patient must be closely monitored for adverse effects.

In some cases, overdose victims face prolonged recovery times, depending on the extent of the overdose and how quickly they receive treatment.


Preventing Benzodiazepine Overdose

Specific steps may be taken to reduce the risk of a benzodiazepine overdose. It is extremely important to:

  • Follow prescription specifications, including dose, frequency, and how to take the drug.
  • Not take other people’s medications, which may be prescribed at higher doses.
  • Discuss all drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements you are taking with your medical provider.
  • Avoid use of other drugs and alcohol.
  • Inform your medical provider if you experience any side effects or changes to your medication regimen or physical or mental health.

National surveys have found that more than 50% of high school seniors surveyed reported obtaining prescriptions drugs from friends or family members.1 Consider reducing access to prescription drugs for adolescents and children by taking the following steps:

  • Keep all prescription medications in a locked cabinet.
  • Properly dispose of expired medications at U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) collection sites.
  • Discuss the risks of prescription drug use with teens and children.

In many cases, benzodiazepine users may abuse several drugs at one time. It is vital that all addictions are treated at the same time to reduce the risk of relapse. If you are unsure whether you or someone else is in need of treatment, consider requesting an assessment from a medical or mental health provider who can recommend an appropriate course of action.

Benzodiazepine users may also face certain mental health issues that need to be addressed during substance abuse recovery. If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, look for a dual diagnosis treatment facility that can simultaneously address both the benzodiazepine addiction and any psychiatric issues that occur alongside it.

Benzodiazepine overdose is an increasing concern as the number of non-medical prescription drug users increases. Taking action to prevent the likelihood of an overdose, only using prescription drugs for medical purposes, and seeking treatment when necessary can minimize the risks associated with benzodiazepine use.

How to Find Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction

Professional treatment can start anyone battling addiction on the path to a happier and healthier life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) runs trusted facilities across the country. To learn more about rehab programs and treatment options, please contact a caring admissions navigator with AAC free at .

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Emily Guarnotta holds a doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. She has a passion for working with clients struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. Her treatment approach includes providing evidence-based practices in a supportive and non-confrontational manner.

Emily's experience also includes working with college students, clients with severe mental illness, and delivering crisis intervention services.

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