Fatal prescription-drug overdoses in the United States have increased sharply in recent years. But while most of the deaths have involved opioid painkillers like oxycodone, a new study suggests that anti-anxiety medications now are playing an outsize role in overdose deaths.
The number of Americans filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs — benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax that are used to treat anxiety, panic disorders and insomnia — increased 67 percent between 1996 and 2013, the study found. But the rate of overdose deaths involving these drugs increased more than fourfold.
The analysis, published online last week in in The American Journal of Public Health, found that 5.6 percent of American adults filled a benzodiazepine prescription in 2013, up from 4.1 percent in 1996. (The actual number of Americans filling a benzodiazepine prescription rose to 13.5 million in 2013, up from 8.1 million in 1996.)
Meanwhile, the rate of overdose deaths involving anti-anxiety drugs reached 3.07 per 100,000 adults in 2013, up from 0.58 per
100,000 adults in 1996.
With public attention focused primarily on opioid painkillers, the role of anti-anxiety drugs “fell under the radar,” said Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, the study’s author and an assistant professor of medicine at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.
Yet when benzodiazepines are abused or combined with other drugs or alcohol, they contribute to depressing the respiratory system, which can be deadly, he said. “If we’re going to address the prescription drug crisis, we can’t just focus on opioids,” he said. “We need to think more broadly about other drugs, like benzodiazepines.”
Benzodiazepines were involved in 6,973 overdose deaths in 2013, or about 30 percent of the 22,767 prescription drug overdoses that year. The other 16,235 prescription drug deaths involved opioids (some people have more than one drug in their system). Overall, there were 43,982 drug overdose deaths in 2013.