Prescription opioids have made headlines because of skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths, but a new report shows that fatalities from another group of medications — sedatives called benzodiazepines — are also increasing.
The researchers found that the death rate from overdoses on benzodiazepines has increased more than fivefold in the United States since 1996. Also known as benzos, the class includes Valium and Xanax. The medicines are most commonly prescribed to treat people with anxiety but are sometimes used in combination with opioids to treat people with chronic pain.
Overdoses involving benzodiazepines are “a public health problem that has gone under the radar,” Marcus Bachhuber, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, said in a statement.
The study also found that “overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time,” Bachhuber said. [5 Surprising Facts About Pain]
In the study, the researchers looked at data on the use of benzodiazepines in an 18-year period. They found that the number of prescriptions being purchased increased by 67 percent, from 8.1 million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013.
The researchers also found that the death rate from overdosing on the drugs increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.
The researchers said they don’t know for sure what caused this increase, but it may have something to do with greater quantities of benzodiazepines being prescribed to patients. People may also be taking higher doses of the drugs, taking them for extended periods or getting them from sources other than doctors — all of which can increase the risk of an overdose, they said.
Moreover, the risk of an overdose increases if people combine benzodiazepines with opioids, which are powerful painkillers, said Chinazo Cunningham, the study’s co-author and a professor of medicine at Einstein. Combining benzodiazepines with alcohol also increases the risk of an overdose, she said.
Though the issue of increasing death rates from opioid overdoses has attracted a lot of media attention, people should also be aware that “another part of the equation is benzodiazepines,” Cunningham said.
Deaths from benzodiazepine overdoses are preventable, the researchers said. While people take the medicines for anxiety, the condition can also be treated in some cases with talk therapy, they said.