Health Effects of Benzodiazepine Use
Using benzodiazepines (also called “benzos”), whether they are used short-term or long-term, is associated with several negative effects. One of the most concerning dangers of long-term benzo use is that it can increase your risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD).3 Beyond that, benzos can also cause other harms as well.
Nearly 5 million Americans misused prescription benzos at some point in 2019.1 In 2019, 681,000 Americans had an SUD involving prescription tranquilizers or sedatives, the class of medicines that includes benzodiazepines.1
Short-Term Effects of Benzodiazepines
When used the right way under a doctor’s care, benzodiazepines can be highly effective at treating anxiety disorders, insomnia, and seizures.2,3 But they also carry a risk of negative side effects, including:2,3,5–7
- Feeling dizzy or feel light-headed.
- Feeling sleepy, which is why benzos are used to manage insomnia.
- Confusion, or having trouble understanding what is going on around you.
- Short-term memory loss (amnesia), especially specific recent events, much like a blackout that can happen after heavy drinking.
- Slowed breathing.
- Psychotic symptoms, including losing touch with reality, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there), or paranoia (deep mistrust of others). Other mental health symptoms, such as depression or sudden aggression can happen as well.
- Slowed reaction time, or taking longer than usual to respond to things around you, which can make it dangerous to drive.
- Reduced muscle control, which can make you more likely to stumble or have trouble doing simple tasks.
- Slurred speech, similar to when drunk.
The Dangers of Benzodiazepine Misuse
Benzodiazepine misuse can happen a few ways: 3,5
- Taking the drug more often or in higher doses than your doctor told you.
- Taking someone else’s prescription.
- Using the drug in a different way than given, such as chewing or crushing and then snorting pills.
- Using the drug just to get high.
- Combining benzos with alcohol or other drugs to increase the effects.
Misusing benzos can increase your chance of developing an SUD.3,5 Long-term use can also lead to health issues that affect the brain and respiratory system (airways, lungs, and blood vessels that carry oxygen through the body) and increase the risks of overdose, among other dangers.6,8,10,14
Dependence, Tolerance, and Withdrawal
Long-term benzodiazepine use can lead to dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal, which are all interrelated and can happen even if you take benzos as prescribed.2,5 Tolerance is when you must take larger and larger doses of a drug for it to have the same effect it had when you first started taking benzos.5
Physical dependence means that your body needs the drug to function normally.2,6 If you are dependent and suddenly stop taking benzos or reduce your dose, you will have withdrawal symptoms.3,9 Benzo withdrawal symptoms are dangerous to the point that they can be deadly. Common withdrawal symptoms can include:2,3,5,7,9,10
- Anxiety or panic attacks.
- Appetite loss.
- Blurred vision.
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia).
- Increased pulse, blood pressure, and body temperature.
- Feeling irritable.
- Memory loss.
- Muscle pain or stiffness.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Tremors (shakiness).
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Other Brain Health Risks
The long-term side effects of benzodiazepine use impact the brain in various ways. Long-term benzo may reduce how well you are able to: 8,10
- Respond to changes in the environment.
- Remember things.
- Understand what you are looking at.
- Solve problems.
- Focus on tasks.
- Express yourself.
Benzos can also cause or worsen mental health issues, with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts all having been linked to long-term use.10,12 There may also be a link between long-term benzo use and dementia (memory loss that gets worse over time).13
A major concern associated with long-term benzodiazepine use is an increased risk of overdose.14 In 2019, there were 9,711 benzo overdose deaths in the United States.15 Overdose is even more likely if you take benzos with other depressants, such as alcohol or opioids, which can slow breathing enough to be fatal.10,14 Overdose risk is especially high with alprazolam (Xanax).14,16
Respiratory System Risks
Benzos can also harm the lungs and airways. As mentioned, benzos are CNS depressants that reduce overall brain activity, especially in the areas that control breathing. If breathing slows too much or stops, this can lead to brain damage, overdose, and death.10,14 This is especially true when you take benzos with opioids or alcohol.10,14 In addition, benzos have been linked to an increased risk of pneumonia (lung infection).17
Risks to the Elderly
The effects of long-term benzodiazepine use can be especially harmful for the elderly, since they process the drug more slowly and may take medicines that can interact with benzos.6,12 Elderly people are at greater risk for falling and breaking bones, especially the hip, when taking benzos.6,18 Memory loss is also common, and withdrawal symptoms may be different, including catatonia (not being able to move in a normal way) and increased confusion.6,9
Reproductive Health Risks
Benzos can be especially harmful during pregnancy. Using benzos while pregnant can increase your chance of miscarriage, as well as lead to problems for baby such as:9,10,19
- Low birth weight.
- Trouble with breathing and eating.
- Trouble controlling body temperature
- Weak immune system.
- Withdrawal symptoms.
Detox and Rehab for Benzodiazepine Misuse
Since benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) strongly advises medical detox as the first step of treatment for benzodiazepine addiction.4 This may involve switching you to a benzo with a lower risk of misuse, such as chlordiazepoxide (Librium) or clonazepam (Klonopin).4 Your care team will slowly reduce your dose over time until you can stop completely. This is called tapering and can help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms.4 If you have been taking very high doses of benzos for long periods of time, SAMHSA suggests inpatient detox.4
Detox is often only the first step of the treatment process.20 Many patients continue treatment with rehab, counseling, or support groups, to learn how to manage triggers, cope with stressors, improve communication skills, develop a sober support group, and learn the skills needed to avoid relapse.5,20
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Benzodiazepine Treatment at American Addiction Centers
American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment in the United States. We offer medical detox and rehab across the country, making it easier than ever to get through withdrawal as safely and comfortably as possible. If you are ready to quit using benzodiazepines, we can help.
Our detox helpline is available 24/7 at and will connect you to an admissions navigator who can answer any questions you may have and get you started on the road to recovery. Alternatively, if you would like to get started online, start the process by checking your insurance coverage instantly or texting our team.