More than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines, a type of prescription sedative commonly prescribed for anxiety or to help with insomnia. Benzodiazepines (sometimes called “benzos”) work to calm or sedate a person, by raising the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and clonazepam (Klonopin), among others.
Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids.1 However, between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67%, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million.2 The quantity obtained also increased from 1.1 kg to 3.6 kg lorazepam-equivalents per 100,000 adults. Combining opioids and benzodiazepines can be unsafe because both types of drug sedate users and suppress breathing—the cause of overdose fatality—in addition to impairing cognitive functions. In 2015, 23 percent of people who died of an opioid overdose also tested positive for benzodiazepines (see graph).3 Unfortunately, many people are prescribed both drugs simultaneously. In a study of over 300,000 continuously insured patients receiving opioid prescriptions between 2001 and 2013, the percentage of persons also prescribed benzodiazepines rose to 17 percent in 2013 from nine percent in 2001.4 The study showed that people concurrently using both drugs are at higher risk of visiting the emergency department or being admitted to a hospital for a drug-related emergency.
Previous studies have also highlighted the dangers of co-prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines. A cohort study in North Carolina found that the overdose death rate among patients receiving both types of medications was 10 times higher than among those only receiving opioids.5 In a study of overdose deaths in people prescribed opioids for noncancer pain in Canada, 60 percent also tested positive for benzodiazepines.6 A study among U.S. veterans with an opioid prescription found that receiving a benzodiazepine prescription was associated with increased risk of drug overdose death in a dose-response fashion.7
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines for the prescribing of opioids.8 They recommend that clinicians avoid prescribing benzodiazepines concurrently with opioids whenever possible. Both prescription opioids and benzodiazepines now carry FDA “black box” warnings on the label highlighting the dangers of using these drugs together. People being prescribed any medications should inform their doctors about all of the other drugs and medications they use, and patients should consult with their doctors about the potential dangers of using various medications and substances together, including the use of alcohol.