Analyzing relevant data between 1996 and 2013, the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey involved with tracking drug prescriptions, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involved with monitoring deaths from drug overdoses claim that despite a sharp increase in fatalities related to heroine and narcotic abuse, deaths from the overdose of sedatives such as Valium, Ativan and Xanax is also on the rise.

Death By Drug Overdose: Benzodiazepines Epidemic

In 2013, overdoses from benzodiazepines accounted for 31 percent of the almost 23,000 deaths attributed to prescription drug overdoses in the US. According to Dr Joanna Starrels, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, the increased prescription of these drugs has contributed to the overall increase in deaths due to drug overdose.

“More than 5 percent of American adults filled prescriptions for benzodiazepines in 2013. The death rate due to overdose has increased more than four times from 1996 to 2013”, she claimed.

Despite these statistics, this epidemic has not received adequate attention. There has been a huge public uproar when it comes to deaths due to addiction and the use of narcotics, but limited response has been given to the increasing deaths attributed to prescription benzodiazepine deaths.

Bringing Narcotics Into The Mix – What Research Says

Benzodiazepines are sedatives and may relax regular breathing, and are generally prescribed for anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia. Even though the number of deaths from prescription benzodiazepines is lower than those from narcotics, Starrels stated that about 75 percent of overdoses involving benzodiazepine also involved narcotics – when taken with alcohol or narcotics such as heroin or Oxycontin, matters can become particularly worse.

According to their findings published online on February 18 in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers highlighted that the number of adults using prescription benzodiazepines has increased by 67 percent over the 18-year period analyzed – 8.1 million prescriptions in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. Moreover, the deaths from drug overdoses increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 in 1996 to more than 3 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 – a more than fivefold increase.

In terms of blacks and Hispanics, the death rates continue to rise for adults aged 65 and above; however the overall rates have leveled off since 2010.

Lapses From Patients And Children

“Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed agents and should be used judiciously”, warns Dr Scott Krakower, the Assistant Unit Chief of Psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New Hyde Park, NY.

A rather alarming aspect is that patients are usually unaware of the detrimental effects these drugs can have, especially when taken with alcohol and narcotics. In addition, patients generally under-report the dosage and amount of these drugs, making it problematic for primary healthcare professionals to precisely estimate what patients have been taking.

Another troubling aspect is children who are using these drugs without understanding their lethal and potentially fatal consequences.

What Needs To Be Done

Krakower suggests that strong regulations regarding these drugs are needed. Possible interventions can include prescribing reduced quantities and using alternative non-habit-forming drugs or longer-acting benzodiazepines.

From a preventive perspective, parents and family members must keep such drugs away from children. It is crucial to educate the public about drug interactions and other adverse reactions when these drugs are combined with alcohol and narcotics. This can serve to prevent drug-seeking behaviors and consequent complications and fatalities.