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Benzodiazepines: Definition, Types, Side Effects and Dangers


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 8/20/2022

Benzodiazepines treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia. Some common brand names of benzodiazepines include Xanax, Halicon, and Ativan. These medications are effective when doctors prescribe them but become dangerous when mixing them with alcohol. In fact, mixing alcohol with benzodiazepines increases the risk of overdose and death.

In the United States, about 12.5% of adults use benzodiazepines to treat a condition like anxiety or insomnia. That said, it’s not typically as dangerous as other drugs because they’re not as addictive. Some statistics suggest that only .2% of adults who take benzodiazepines misuse the substance. Read on to learn more about benzodiazepine and how it interacts with alcohol in the body.

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines belong to a class of psychoactive drugs. The core structure of benzodiazepines is the fusion between the benzene ring and diazepine ring. Some common brand names of benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin. While there are several different types of benzodiazepine brands, they all serve a similar purpose.

Benzodiazepines are also known as “benzos” because of their depressive effects. Ultimately, benzodiazepines are a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that slows down neurotransmitters in the brain. For this reason, benzodiazepines are used to treat panic disorders, anxiety disorders, and sometimes even depression. In fact, benzodiazepines can also be used to treat seizures and sleeping conditions like insomnia.

When mixing alcohol with benzodiazepines, the substances become dangerous. Alcohol and benzodiazepines slow down central nervous system function, so the risk of slowed breathing increases. Mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines can also cause someone to feel more intoxicated, which can cause someone to lose consciousness.

How Do Benzodiazepines Work?

Benzodiazepines work by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, specifically the GABA A receptor. When the benzodiazepines bind to the GABA A receptor it enhances it and causes the central nervous system to slow down. Because it slows the nervous system, it’s one of the most effective medications for anxiety and sleep disorders.

When benzodiazepines interact with this neurotransmitter it results in sedative-like effects. For example, people feel sleepy, and anxiety-inducing thoughts become less abundant. Benzodiazepines also have a similar effect on muscle structures within the body, which doctors prescribe it as an anticonvulsant. It also helps with seizures because it slows down neurotransmitters that cause the body to seize.

In some situations, medical professionals can inject benzodiazepines with the use of an IV system. Keep in mind that these are for severe medical conditions or disorders. Unfortunately, some people attempt to inject benzodiazepines with needles and the result is often an overdose.

What are the Types of Benzodiazepines?

There are a handful of benzodiazepines. Each type will treat a specific disorder, which is why diazepam helps alcohol withdrawal instead of a medication like Xanax. However, most benzodiazepines perform a similar function.

The types of benzodiazepines are listed below.

  • Diazepam
  • Lorazepam
  • Alprazolam 
  • Triazolam 
  • Temazepam 
  • Triazolam 
  • Midazolam
  • Flurazepam
  • Clorazepate
  • Clonazepam 
  • Chlordiazepoxide
  • Estazolam
  • Quazepam

Depending on the medical condition, different types of benzodiazepines can treat different things. Always consult with your doctor before trying different types of benzodiazepines and only use the medications that are prescribed to you.

What are the Side Effects of Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are effective for treating mental health disorders and seizures but there are side effects. These side effects vary in severity and depend on the person, dosage, and condition the medication is treating. For side effects that don’t improve over time, it’s important to consult with a doctor to determine if continued benzodiazepine use is safe.

Below are the side effects of benzodiazepines.

  • Feeling light-headed
  • Fatigue and drowsiness 
  • Unsteadiness
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred or inconsistent speech
  • Confusion 
  • Memory issues (short and long term)
  • Constipation and abdominal pain 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Nausea and vomiting

There are also some less common side effects of benzodiazepines. We list these side effects below.

  • Headaches and migraines 
  • Changes in blood pressure 
  • Elevated saliva production
  • Digestive problems 
  • Skin rashes
  • Problems with vision that don’t improve
  • Tremors 
  • Impotence 
  • Trouble with urination

People may also experience jaundice as a symptom of benzodiazepine use, which indicates liver problems.

What are the Dangers of Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are dangerous for a few reasons. Most of the danger comes from using benzodiazepines without a prescription. Some examples include mixing benzodiazepines with other medications and mixing benzodiazepines with substances like alcohol. When benzodiazepines are mixed with other medications the risk of overdose and addiction is increases.

Another factor that makes benzodiazepines dangerous is addiction. Benzodiazepines, like alcohol, can cause someone to die when someone stops using the substance. While death from benzodiazepine withdrawal is rare, it typically occurs in cases where someone abuses the substance for many years.

Benzodiazepines are significantly more dangerous when mixed with medications that are also central nervous system (CNS) depressants. A great example of another CNS depressant is alcohol. When mixed with CNS depressants the nervous system can slow to dangerous levels, which can lead to slowed breathing, a decrease in blood pressure, and the risk of entering a coma increases.

Benzodiazepines are also dangerous to use when operating heavy machinery like an automobile. Driving while under the influence of benzodiazepines increases the risk of accidents. This is because CNS depressants slow reaction times and result in less alertness.

What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are addictive drugs that can cause someone to develop an addiction. An addiction to benzodiazepines increases the risk of overdose, co-occurring mental health disorders, and co-occurring disorders. 

While addiction is unlikely when the medication is used properly, people can abuse the substance by taking more than the prescribed amount. Moreover, addiction can develop when someone takes benzodiazepines without a prescription.

The symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal are listed below.

  • Trouble with concentration
  • Neck and face pain 
  • Dizziness 
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety 
  • Shaking 
  • Agoraphobia 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Depression 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Panic attacks
  • Nightmares
  • Sore eyes and throat 
  • Tinnitus 
  • Trouble walking
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss 

These are only a handful of the withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines. Some severe withdrawal symptoms to look for include depersonalization, delusions, and a burning sensation on the skin. People who suddenly stop benzodiazepines can also develop psychosis and other severe mental health disorders.

What is the Difference Between Xanax and Benzodiazepine?

While Xanax is a type of benzodiazepine, there are a few differences that set it apart from other medications of the same drug class. Therefore, Xanax vs. benzodiazepines are more about how Xanax differs from similar medications. 

One of the biggest differences between Xanax and other benzodiazepines is that Xanax is a fast-acting benzodiazepine. Compared to other benzodiazepines, it only lasts for around 11 hours. This increases the risk of developing an addiction because it loses its effectiveness faster.

Another difference is that Xanax is often prescribed as a when-needed medication. So, it’s not something that people are told to use daily. Instead, it’s designed to treat anxiety attacks and panic disorders that come and go. There are a handful of benzodiazepines that can be used daily, however, which makes Xanax unique.

The last notable difference is that Xanax is not as effective for sleep as some other benzodiazepines. For example, diazepam is more effective than Xanax in inducing long periods of sleep. Diazepam is also better at treating insomnia and symptoms of withdrawal from substances like alcohol.

Are Benzodiazepines Addictive?

Yes, benzodiazepines are addictive when misused. Misuse of benzodiazepines includes taking more than the amount prescribed and taking benzodiazepines without a prescription. While the medication produces a calming effect, the mind and body can become dependent on benzodiazepines because of how the substance interacts with GABA A receptors and serotonin.

Can Benzodiazepines Cause Depression?

Numerous studies have linked benzodiazepines to depression. So, yes, benzodiazepines can lead to depression. In cases where benzodiazepines lead to depression, there are typically a few factors that are the same for most people.

The primary indicator is misuse. People who chronically abuse benzodiazepines have a higher risk of developing depression. Additionally, people who suddenly stop taking benzodiazepines have a higher risk of developing depression and other mental health disorders.

Can Benzodiazepines be Used for Alcohol Withdrawal?

Yes, benzodiazepines can be used for alcohol withdrawal. While it’s not one of the most common treatment methods, studies have shown that it can reduce the risk of seizures caused by delirium tremens. Furthermore, benzodiazepines can treat anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and insomnia caused by alcohol withdrawal.

So, what is alcohol withdrawal? Alcohol withdrawal occurs when someone becomes physically dependent on alcohol. That said, always make sure you reach out to a medical professional using benzodiazepines to treat alcohol withdrawal. While it can be effective, the misuse of benzodiazepines can result in overdose, death, and other problems.