When used as prescribed, it is rare for benzodiazepine (benzo) use to result in a lethal overdose. However, when a person takes an excessive amount or combines it with another substance, the risk for overdose increases.
Signs of benzo overdose include the following:
- Blurry vision
- Slurred speech
- Breathing difficulties
- Bluish fingernails or lips
- Impaired coordination
- Altered mental state
Excessive doses of benzos can lead to severe drowsiness. In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, it is also possible to experience slowed reflexes, mood swings, erratic behavior, and euphoria.
Symptoms of an overdose vary between individuals depending on several different factors. These factors include the following:
- Amount used
- Other psychoactive substances used
- Duration of abuse
- Co-occurring mental or physical health problems
- Method of use
Although rare, some people can experience severe complications following a benzo overdose due to respiratory distress, lack of oxygen, or accidental injury that occurred while they were under the influence. These complications may include pneumonia, damage to the body and brain, and death.
What Are Benzos?
Benzodiazepines are among the most prescribed depressant prescription drugs in the United States. There are over 15 different kinds of benzo medications that treat various psychological and physical conditions.
Commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Librium (chlorodiazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Halcion (triazolam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Valium (diazepam)
A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that benzos are the most frequently abused pharmaceuticals in the U.S. due to their widespread availability. The research also found that the number of emergency department visits due to benzos increased by 36% between 2004-2006.
Benzos can induce anxiolytic, hypnotic, muscle relaxant, anti-convulsant, and amnesiac effects. Due to their sedative properties, benzos have a high potential for abuse, mainly when used with other central nervous system (CNS) depressants, such as opioids or alcohol.
How Benzos Interact With the Body
Benzodiazepines affect a crucial neurochemical known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that slows nerve impulses throughout the brain and body.
The CNS has two types of benzodiazepine receptors—one that causes an anti-anxiety effect and another that induces a sedative effect. Although most benzodiazepines trigger the same physical effects, their dosage and blood absorption rates can vary, the Center for Substance Abuse Research reports.
Benzo Tolerance, Dependence, and Withdrawal
Over time, tolerance to benzos will most likely occur. Tolerance develops when a person no longer experiences the desired effects when using the same amount of a drug. According to a report issued by American Family Physician, it is also possible for benzos to lose their effectiveness after 4-6 months of daily use.
Individuals often become tolerant to the milder effects of the drug-like sedation and impaired motor coordination. The Center for Substance Abuse Research states that some cross-tolerance exists between benzos and other depressants, such as alcohol. As an individual’s tolerance to benzos builds, so will their tolerance to the other depressive substances.
The addictive properties of benzodiazepines are potent, and tolerance can develop rapidly. Therefore, if a person dependent on benzos abruptly discontinues use, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
The withdrawal process can be life-threatening due to side effects like seizures. Withdrawal symptoms can also include anxiety, sleep disturbances, memory problems, hallucinations, and suicidal ideations.
Benzodiazepine Overdose: What to Do
If a person is exhibiting signs of a benzodiazepine overdose, call 911 immediately or visit the nearest emergency department. It is essential to get medical attention to decrease the likelihood of adverse consequences and death.
Individuals in these circumstances will be treated with the necessary respiratory support and medications to reverse the sedating effects of the overdose. Flumazenil is a medication commonly used to treat benzo overdose in the event of an emergency.
Some individuals may face extended recovery times depending on the severity of the overdose and how quickly they are given treatment.
Treatment for Benzo Overdose and Addiction
Benzo overdose and withdrawal are dangerous conditions. Therefore, those dependent on it may be helped by detox and addiction treatment programs to stop using the drug in a safe environment.
Due to the high risk of polydrug use involved with benzo abuse, it is essential to seek formal treatment because detoxing from multiple drugs can produce unpredictable and life-threatening side effects. To minimize the risk of relapse, all addictions and other co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, must be addressed.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery offer comprehensive, clinically-proven therapies and services that include the following:
- Individual/group counseling
- Support groups
- Health and wellness education
- Art and music therapy
- Aftercare planning
- Alumni activities