Benzodiazepines (or benzos) are a group of nervous system depressants commonly prescribed to treat stress, anxiety or insomnia. They are also known as ‘minor tranquillisers’ and sedatives (or sleeping pills).
Benzodiazepines are available on prescription in Australia and should only be used under a doctor’s supervision. They can be highly addictive.
Although they are classified as minor tranquillisers, this is not a reference to the effect that benzodiazepines have on the body.
What are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are medicines that are only available on prescription from a doctor. They are usually a short-term treatment to help calm the nervous system and promote sleep.
Benzodiazepines may be prescribed to:
- treat the symptoms of anxiety disorders
- relieve insomnia
- help with treatment of symptoms experienced by cancer patients
- control epilepsy
- help relax muscles during certain medical procedures (such as endoscopy)
- treat alcohol withdrawal.
Types of benzodiazepines
There are three types of benzodiazepines – long-acting, intermediate and short-acting. Short-acting medications tend to be more addictive and have a stronger withdrawal and ‘come down’ effect. They are made by different companies and sold under various brand names.
Some common benzodiazepines include:
- long-acting – diazepam (Valium)
- intermediate-acting – nitrazepam (Mogadon)
- short-acting – oxazepam (Serapax), temazepam (Normison) and alprazolam (Xanax).
How benzodiazepines work
Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants, which means they slow down the workings of the brain. They only treat symptoms of anxiety or insomnia, and do not solve the underlying causes of these conditions.
Benzodiazepines can be highly addictive, whether they are taken under medical supervision or used recreationally.
Benzodiazepines are a small part of treatment
It is generally recommended that benzodiazepines only be used for a short term – just days or weeks at a time.
They are a small part of overall treatment for stress, anxiety or insomnia and used with other treatments that provide longer term solutions such as:
Recreational use of benzodiazepines
Some people take benzodiazepines illegally for recreational use. They may use them to feel a sense of euphoria (or high) or mix them with other drugs such as stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy) to ‘come down’.
Benzodiazepines can be dangerous when mixed with other drugs (including alcohol) and can put you at risk of overdose or harm.
Some people may give them to others intentionally or without their consent (such as spiking their drink).
In Victoria, it is against the law to use benzodiazepines without a prescription or to give or sell them to someone else.
How benzodiazepines affect the body
The effects of benzodiazepines depend on the strength of the dose, the physical make-up of the person taking them and their state of mind.
Common effects of benzodiazepines include:
- relief from anxiety
- muscle relaxation
- a sense of being disconnected or detached from reality
- loss of inhibitions.
Long-term effects of benzodiazepines
Using benzodiazepines on a regular basis can lead to significant health problems, including:
- impaired thinking or memory loss
- anxiety and depression
- irritability, paranoia and aggression
- personality change
- weakness, lethargy and lack of motivation
- drowsiness, sleepiness and fatigue
- difficulty sleeping or disturbing dreams
- skin rashes and weight gain
- withdrawal symptoms.
Benzodiazepines and pregnancy
There is a risk that benzodiazepines can be harmful to babies. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is best to avoid them. Be guided by your doctor and health team.
Store benzodiazepines securely
As benzodiazepines can be highly addictive, they should only be used under medical supervision.
If you are prescribed benzodiazepines, store them safely and securely and never allow others to use them.
In larger doses, benzodiazepines produce a similar effect to drunkenness. People may:
- lose coordination
- slur their speech
- have problems with thinking, concentration and memory
- have severe mood swings and aggression
- be jittery and excitable
- experience nausea
- have sleeping problems.
Overdoses are usually characterised by slow, shallow breathing which may lead to unconsciousness, coma and potentially death.
This is more common if benzodiazepines are combined with other drugs such as alcohol, painkillers, antidepressants, antihistamines, or heroin.
If you suspect an overdose, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.
Benzodiazepine dependence and tolerance
Taking benzodiazepines regularly may not only lead to physical dependence (addiction), but can also lead to psychological dependence where people may feel they need the drug to cope with daily life.
After only a short amount of time, a person can develop a tolerance, which means they need to take larger and larger doses to achieve the same effect. Some people may begin to experience tolerance after only a few days. Over time, the body comes to depend on benzodiazepines to function at its best.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines
Withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person and are different depending on the type of benzodiazepine being taken. Symptoms can last from a few weeks to a year and may include:
- aching or twitching muscles
- dizziness and tremors
- nausea, vomiting and stomach pains
- bizarre dreams, difficulty sleeping and fatigue
- poor concentration
- anxiety and irritability
- altered perception and heightening of senses
- delusions, hallucinations and paranoia
It is recommended to withdraw from benzodiazepines slowly, over a period of months, under medical supervision.
Someone who suddenly stops taking benzodiazepines after a prolonged period of use can put themselves at risk of serious withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures.
Treating benzodiazepine dependence
Treatment options for drug dependence may include detoxification, individual counselling and group therapy.
See your doctor for information and referral, or contact an alcohol and drug service – call DrugInfo on 1300 85 85 84 to find the appropriate referral for you.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Alcohol and Drug Foundation
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