What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are a type of sedative medication that can be helpful for the short-term management of symptoms of anxiety and insomnia.

Examples of benzos include diazepam (Valium®), alprazolam (Xanax®), chlordiazepoxide (Librium®) and lorazepam (Ativan®).

Benzodiazepines can be legally obtained by a prescription. If illegally sourced, on the street or on the internet, these unregulated supplies mean that people don’t know for certain what they are taking.

Side effects and risks

The number of deaths related to benzos has increased significantly in recent years.

Usually, the side effects of benzos include feeling drowsy or disinhibited, which can also lead some people to take more risks.

If benzos are mixed with other substances or medicines which also cause drowsiness – such as alcohol, gabapentinoids (pregabalin and gabapentin) or opioids – they can cause slow and ineffective breathing (respiratory depression) which can be fatal.

Long term use of these medicines can cause the slowing of connections made between mental and muscle functions (cognitive and psychomotor impairment).

If used regularly, they may not work as well because people become tolerant of them, and they may need a higher dose to get the same effect.

Dependence and addiction can also occur. People may find it difficult to stop taking them. If someone who is dependent suddenly stops taking them the withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. If this is thought to be an issue then medical advice should be sought.

Safety and advice

The safest option is always not to use drugs, but if you do choose to take illicit benzodiazepines, here is some advice on how to stay safe:

  • Start low and go slow. Begin with a small amount, such as half a tablet, and wait at least an hour before taking more.
  • If things go wrong, get help straight away. If you are honest about what you think you has been taken, it will be easier to get the right medical help fast.
  • Avoid mixing with other drugs, especially depressants like alcohol and opioids, as this can be fatal.
  • Avoid using alone. Try to be with people that you know well and trust in a safe environment, especially if it’s your first time.
  • Look after your friends. If they’re sleeping or unconscious, put them in the recovery position to prevent the risk of choking on vomit.