Benzodiazepine Side Effects: What You Need to Know

Learn more about benzodiazepines, benzodiazepine side effects, and available treatment options for addiction here.

Benzodiazepines: Overview

Benzodiazepines can be difficult on the body and, as with various medications, can have many different side effects. It is important to know what benzodiazepine side effects look like and what to expect when using these types of medications.

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines, also referred to as benzos, are medications that decrease activity in the nervous system. Benzodiazepines are controlled substances. 

This means that you need a prescription to get these medications. It is illegal to have or get benzodiazepines without a proper prescription.1

How Do Benzodiazepines Work?

Benzodiazepines work by acting on one of the chemicals in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA reduces activity in areas of the brain that are responsible for:2

  • Reasoning
  • Memory
  • Emotions
  • The nervous system, such as breathing

As a result, using benzodiazepines has the effect of increasing GABA on your brain and body. This results in muscle relaxation, reduced anxiety, and sedation.

Types of Benzodiazepines

Different types of benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat different conditions. They also may cause different side effects. There are three types of benzodiazepines:3

  • Short-acting benzos
  • Intermediate benzos
  • Long-acting benzos
Each type of benzodiazepine has a different half-life. This means that each one has a different length of time that it is active in the body. The different types of benzos are detailed below.

Short-Acting Benzodiazepines

Short-acting benzos have a median half-life of one to twelve hours. This type tends to have a stronger withdrawal and can be more addictive. 

Some examples of short-acting benzodiazepines include Triazolam (Halcion) and Alprazolam (Xanax).

Intermediate Benzodiazepines

Intermediate benzos have an average half-life of 12 to 40 hours. Some examples of intermediate benzodiazepines are Lorazepam (Ativan) and Clonezapam (Klonopin).

Long-Acting Benzodiazepines

Long-acting benzos have an average half-life of 40 to 250 hours. Examples of this type of medication include diazepam (Valium) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).4

Why Do People Use Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines can be used for a variety of reasons. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of benzodiazepines to treat:5
  • Insomnia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Seizure disorders like epilepsy

Other Common Uses

In some instances, doctors may also prescribe benzos to treat:
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Other sleep disorders
  • Tic disorders
  • Alcohol withdrawal
Despite these medications being beneficial to treating various medical and mental health conditions, there is a high potential for misuse and abuse. In fact, a recent study reported that in U.S. adults, misuse of benzodiazepines accounted for nearly 20% of overall use.6

Benzodiazepine Misuse and Abuse

It is not only prescribed benzos that are being misused. These types of medications are often used recreationally to achieve a sense of relaxation. 

There is a high occurrence of benzodiazepines being used alongside substances like opioids and alcohol. This is meant to enhance the sedative effect and increase a sense of euphoria.

Statistics

Approximately 1 in 5 people in the U.S. who abuse alcohol also abuse benzodiazepines. A major concern with using benzodiazepines and other substances is the increased risk of overdose and death.7

It was reported that benzodiazepine involvement in “opioid-related deaths increased dramatically, from 18% in 2004 to 31% in 2011.” This is often due to the fact that opioids can cause prominent respiratory depression. When combined with benzodiazepines, which also relax the nervous system, the results can be deadly.8

Another statistic shows that emergency department (ED) visits involving the nonmedical use of alprazolam (Xanax) accounted for 10 percent of all ED visits involving the nonmedical use of medications. This may be due to one of the benzodiazepine side effects being potential abuse. But there are many other benzodiazepine side effects that may be worrisome or harmful.9

Benzodiazepine Side Effects

There are many known benzodiazepine side effects and each individual medication can have different effects. Reactions to these drugs may be different from person to person. 

Some benzodiazepine side effects to look out for are detailed below.

Common Short-Term Benzodiazepine Side Effects

Some common short-term side effects include:
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Light-headedness
  • Constipation
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness
  • Unsteadiness (especially in older people)

Less Common Side Effects of Benzodiazepines

While they are less common, other benzodiazepine side effects include:
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure
  • Tremors
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Changes in sexual desire
  • Difficulty urinating

These short-term side effects may resolve over time. They may not result in any serious concerns, but there are some benzodiazepine side effects that are more serious or long-lasting.

Serious Long-Term Side Effects of Benzodiazepines

Some of the more severe and long-lasting side effects include:
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Amnesia
  • Aggression or hostility
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression
  • Delirium
  • Risk of dependence
  • Overdose

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms can occur with benzodiazepine use after as little as one month of use. 

Of individuals taking benzos for longer than 6 months, 40% of them reported experiencing moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stopped using the medication.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Possible withdrawal symptoms include:10
  • Increased anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Panic attacks
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Hallucinations (auditory, visual, or tactile)
  • Blurred vision
  • Racing pulse
  • Seizures

How Long Does Withdrawal Last?

The length of the withdrawal symptoms is dependent upon several factors, including:
  • The type of benzodiazepines used
  • The dose
  • Length of time used

For short-acting benzos, withdrawal symptoms tend to peak around the second day and resolve on the fourth or fifth day. 

But estimates have suggested that 10 to 25 percent of chronic benzodiazepine users experience long-term withdrawal symptoms that may come and go for several months.11

Benzodiazepine Side Effects

Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment Options

Benzodiazepine misuse and abuse can have significant impacts on an individual’s physical, emotional, and financial well-being. If you experience benzodiazepine side effects or withdrawal symptoms, it is important to follow up with a medical provider. 

Some treatment options include:12

  • Slowly tapering off the medication
  • Seeking therapy to address issues or concerns related to the benzodiazepine use
  • Seeking substance abuse treatment such as detox, outpatient, residential, and/or support groups
  • Practicing meditation and mindfulness to reduce anxiety
  • Using monitoring and medication management
  • Substituting short-acting benzodiazepines with long-acting ones to reduce abuse potential

Benzodiazepine Side Effects and Addiction Treatment at Essence Health & Wellness

At Essence Health & Wellness, we specialize in the treatment of substance abuse and mental health conditions. We focus on the individual and provide recovery techniques to help each person reach their goals. 

Our treatment programs include:

By combining 12-Step principles with effective evidence-based techniques, we provide you with the best resources for recovery.

Contact Essence Health & Wellness Today

To find out how Essence Health & Wellness can help you manage benzodiazepine side effects or addiction, contact us today at 818.491.7288 or fill out our online application.

We look forward to helping you heal.

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Questions About Treatment?

We are a patient-first substance abuse and mental health treatment facility located in Los Angeles, California. At Essence Health & Wellness, we provide different levels of care from detoxification to drug rehab aftercare. Our team is standing by to address your questions. Your call is confidential and no obligation is required.