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Benzodiazepines: Uses, Types, Side Effects and Risks

Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are a class of medicines with anticonvulsant, anxiolytic, hypnotic, muscle relaxant, and sedative effects. Due to these properties, benzodiazepines are often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and relieve the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

Benzodiazepines work by enhancing the brain’s response to a chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows brain activity.

This action results in slowing of the central nervous system (CNS), inducing a state of relaxation. Benzodiazepines are fairly quick-acting, relieving symptoms in a short amount of time.

Types of Benzodiazepines

Some common types of Benzodiazepines include:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax) is used in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorder.
  • Oxazepam (Murelax) is used to treat anxiety, IBS, and control the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene) is used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal, and control seizures.
  • Diazepam (Valium) is used to treat anxiety, muscle spasm, seizures, and relieve symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Lorazepam (Ativan) is used primarily to treat anxiety disorders, but it may also be used for alcohol withdrawal, insomnia, IBS, and seizures.
  • Temazepam (Restoril) is used for treating insomnia and anxiety.

Side Effects of Benzodiazepines

Possible side effects of benzodiazepine use include:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle weakness

Injecting benzodiazepines may also cause:

  • Vein damage and scarring.
  • Infection, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS.
  • Deep vein thrombosis and clots causing loss of limbs, damage to organs, stroke and possibly death.

Adverse effects of prolonged benzodiazepine use

Aside from the potential physical health complications, prolonged use of benzodiazepine may cause a number of mental health complications, including:

  • Irritability
  • Loss of confidence
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Suicidal ideation

Benzodiazepine Dependence

Benzodiazepines are usually only recommended for short-term use, as long-term use can lead to tolerance and dependence, meaning that your body will require more of the drug to achieve the same therapeutic effect. This can lead to dependence.

People who have already become physically dependent on benzodiazepine will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stopped taking the drug.

Withdrawal from benzos can be uncomfortable, dangerous, and even life-threatening. Symptoms usually start within 24 hours, and typically last a few days to a few months, depending on the severity of the addiction.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on the type of benzodiazepine used, the dosage, how long benzos have been taken, and whether alcohol or other drugs were also used.

Symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal may include one or more of the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Panic
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle pain
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Hallucinations

In severe cases, serious complications may develop, such as seizures, delirium tremens (DTs), and psychosis. Individuals with a history of seizures and those who mix benzos with alcohol or other prescription drugs may be at higher risk for developing seizures during withdrawal.

Can Benzodiazepines Be Used During Pregnancy?

Benzodiazepines are classified as an FDA pregnancy category D drug, meaning that they may cause harm to an unborn baby and are contraindicated in pregnancy.

Pregnant women or women who plan to become pregnant are advised to speak with their doctor before using benzos.

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