Substance Types and Effects: Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, sometimes called benzos, are a class of drugs prescribed by doctors to treat many conditions, like anxiety and seizures. Common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium).

Like many prescription drugs, benzos can be misused by taking them in higher dosages than prescribed, or without a prescription at all.

How do benzodiazepines affect the body?

Benzodiazepines strengthen the effect of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter calms neurons that are associated with stress.

Like opioids, benzodiazepines are fast-acting and can be addictive. 

Using benzodiazepines enhances GABA’s effectiveness, which helps an overly excited brain become calmer and more tranquil. When taken as directed, benzodiazepine are safe and can be quite effective. Side effects can include drowsiness, confusion, and depressed feelings.

A user can develop a tolerance to, or dependence upon, benzodiazepines quickly—whether they are taking them as directed by their doctor or misusing.

What are some signs that someone is misusing benzos?

General changes in mood and behavior can be an indicator of substance use. Someone misusing benzodiazepines may seem drowsy, lethargic, or disoriented. Speech may be slurred, and coordination may be impaired.

The biggest risk of benzo misuse is overdose, which can be fatal.

This risk increases when benzos are combined with other substances. An increasing number of opioid overdose deaths in America involve benzodiazepines. In 2017, benzodiazepines were present in over one-third of prescription opioid overdose deaths, and in 17% of synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

How can people who use benzodiazepines reduce risks?

  • If prescribed, always take benzos as directed by your doctor
  • Never combine with alcohol or opioids—this can increase the risk of fatal overdose
  • Don’t combine with certain over-the-counter cold or allergy medication

How can a benzodiazepine use disorder be treated?

These disorders can be treated effectively, and should be treated under a doctor’s supervision, since benzodiazepine withdrawal requires medical attention.

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