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Painkillers & anxiety meds make deadly combo

Sep 01 2016
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Painkillers help you deal with pain. Anxiety drugs help you deal with anxiety, insomnia or other problems. Together? They can kill you.

The Food and Drug Administration has added a “black box warning” to painkillers and anxiety medications. They want to stress to doctors and patients that these drugs, taken together, can make people stop breathing.

Opioid painkillers (such as OxyContin or Vicodin) and cough medicines, and benzodiazepine anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs (such as Valium and Xanax) are effective medicines when used for a short period of time. They are frequently prescribed – so often, in fact, that 12 percent of all primary care doctor visits involves a prescription for one of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now the Food and Drug Administration has added a “black box warning” to more than 400 opioid and benzodiazepine drugs. They want to stress to doctors and patients that these drugs, taken together, can make people stop breathing.

Opioids and benzodiazepines both depress the respiratory system, but in different ways. Their combined effects can be deadly. In 2010, 30 percent of the more than 16,000 Americans who died from opioid overdoses had also taken benzodiazepines, up from 17 percent in 2006.

In 2012, prescribers wrote 82.5 opioid prescriptions and 37.6 benzodiazepine prescriptions for every 100 people in the U.S.

It’s not just illegal drug users who overdose

Illegal drugs such as heroin (an opioid) certainly account for many drug overdoses. Yet In 2010, more than half of the overdose deaths in the U.S. were from prescription drugs.

Opioids and benzodiazepines are in an astonishing number of medicine cabinets, legally. In 2012, prescribers wrote 82.5 opioid prescriptions and 37.6 benzodiazepine prescriptions for every 100 people in the United States, the CDC reports. That’s more than one prescription for each man, woman and child in the country. The number of prescriptions for opioids has quadrupled since 1999, according to the CDC. The percent of adults filling benzodiazepine prescriptions has increased 36 percent since 1996, with the amount of the drug in each prescription growing as well.

With this volume, it’s easy to see how deadly mixtures of the drugs can happen, even by mistake. If your dentist sends you home with an opioid for pain after dental surgery, but you forgot to tell him that you have some anti-anxiety medications stashed away, you could end up taking both. Some doctors even prescribe both for a patient, although often beginning at different times to address different issues.

Take them together, and you could end up as one of the almost 7,000 people who are brought to U.S. emergency rooms every day because they misused prescription medications, with serious consequences. In 2011, the combination of opioids and benzodiazepine brought more than 50,000 people into emergency rooms.

How can you avoid becoming a drug statistic?

  • Don’t take ANY two drugs together without asking your doctor first. Opioids and benzodiazepines are just one of many dangerous combinations.
  • Don’t drink alcohol while taking any prescribed drugs, unless your doctor has specifically said it is OK.
  • Read and follow the printed information your pharmacy gives you with the medicine.
  • Never take a drug prescribed for someone else.
  • If you have medication left over from a prescription – get rid of it.