With the opioid crisis gaining more exposure, there is a troublesome and possibly related trend being uncovered: teen overdoses related to benzodiazepines.
A recent report reveals drug overdoses caused by this particular class of sedatives are sharply rising among teens. Over the past decade, the number of overdoses attributed to benzodiazepine misuse (especially Xanax and Valium) has soared.
Overdoses caused by these drugs among children and teens increased by 54 percent between 2000 and 2015, based on data collected by U.S. poison control centers.
"The increase in benzodiazepine overdoses among kids appears to reflect an increase in the number of prescriptions handed out for the drugs," study co-author Dr. Diane Calello said in the report.
"As a nation, we're trying to cut down more and more on opioid prescribing," Calello added. "Medications like this may be a substitute and may be more available."
Almost half of the reported overdoses were found to involve kids who had taken the drugs either recreationally or to attempt suicide. The research also noted that 4 of 5 teenagers take benzodiazepines along with other substances.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States for anxiety, alcohol withdrawal and treating seizures. They are also given before surgical and dental procedures. Some of the most familiar benzodiazepines are known as Valium, Xanax, and Klonipin. These drugs are categorized as tranquilizers.
They are highly addictive and should only be prescribed for short-term use under close medical supervision. So, how are children and teens getting their hands on these potent drugs?
- Doctors and Psychiatrists are prescribing them in place of opioids or for generalized anxiety and treating acute stress
- Kids are raiding the medicine cabinets of their parents or friends
- They are sold at school and at parties
- Kids use them recreationally just to relax or relieve tension
If these drugs are being passed around at school or parties and kids think they're safe, they take them. Teens may also succumb to peer pressure to try these drugs. But, benzodiazepines have hidden dangers that many do not realize.
Dangers Of Benzodiazepines
Although these drugs are widely prescribed, that doesn't mean they're safe. Unfortunately, doctors are not informing patients of some of the serious risks associated with their use.
- They are highly addictive
- Tolerance can build quickly leading to over-medicating and possible overdose
- They can be lethal if taken with alcohol and other drugs
- Withdrawals after longterm use can be prolonged and uncomfortable
- They have been linked to suicide in some users
- Side effects include cognitive decline, confusion, drowsiness, mood swings
Benzodiazepines must not be stopped abruptly. Seizures and death have resulted from "cold turkey" tapers. Since these drugs act on the central nervous system, they can require a long time for the brain to heal after extensive use, especially in the growing teen brain.
Prescribing these drugs with opioids can cause further complications. This confirms research from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, which shows more than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also include benzodiazepines.
Certain children and teens are at an increased risk of developing a dependence on benzodiazepines that may potentially lead to an overdose, including those:
- Who already use opioids, alcohol or other substances
- With a history of personal substance abuse or family history
- Diagnosed with anxiety or depression
- Who can access the prescriptions of family or friends
Another study found that 1 in 4 people prescribed Valium develop an addiction. The research showed that people given the drug for an extended time period (beyond the recommended 4-6 weeks) were at the greatest risk of becoming addicted.
This study points to the need for physicians to be more informed about the long term risks associated with prescribing benzodiazepines. This includes having a plan to wean their patients off when the time is appropriate.
What can parents do to help minimize risks for their children?
If your child or teen is prescribed benzodiazepines, you need to understand exactly why and then proceed with extreme caution. As a parent, you have every right to question the doctor and learn the details of your child's care. Some other precautions you can take include:
- Locking up any benzodiazepine or opioid medications in your household
- Returning any unused or expired prescriptions to your pharmacy or doctor's office
- Talking with your child about the potential dangers of benzodiazepine use
Parents can assist their child's doctors in providing valuable feedback related to their care. Open communication and ongoing discussions with the entire care team will help ensure the best treatment for your child.
For those in recovery, benzodiazepines can pose unique challenges. Doctors sometimes prescribe them to lessen withdrawal symptoms or manage acute stress during detox. If you are currently taking benzodiazepines, it's important to have an exit strategy.