ER Visits Linked To Xanax Abuse Increase: Patients Mix Psychiatric Drug With Other Prescription Pain Killers, Alcohol

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Medical experts are concerned about the rising trend in alprazolam abuse, since many patients mix Xanax with other prescription drugs. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

According to a new report out of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there has been a significant rise in the number of Americans being rushed to the emergency room due to abuse of Xanax — a sedative known as alprazolam, used frequently to treat depression and anxiety.

The number of ER visits linked to alprazolam rose from 57,000 in 2005 to 124,000 in 2011, the SAMHSA report concluded. “This report highlights the need to educate people about the dangers of misusing or sharing prescription medications and the importance of properly disposing of unused medication,” SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde said in a news release.

Alprazolam is a medication used to treat anxiety, insomnia and depression, and was the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug in 2011. But when taken with other central nervous system depressants, like pain killers, alprazolam can be dangerous — it can cause lowered breathing and heart rate and can lead to lost consciousness. According to the SAMHSA report, 81 percent of the cases that were studied involved patients taking the psychiatric drug in combination with other prescription drugs and/or alcohol. Of the 52,000 patients that used Xanax with several other drugs, 85 percent of them mixed it with prescription drugs and 46 percent used it with illegal drugs. Another 39 percent combined it with booze.

“When used as directed, alprazolam is safe and effective, but misuse can result in serious health consequences,” Hyde said. Taking alprazolam could cause dizziness or drowsiness, even if taken correctly — but it’s still recommended to avoid driving or using machinery, as well as alcohol, when on it.

“We’re seeing growth in the number of people who are getting into trouble with these drugs,” Pete Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, said. “Patients really need to be educated that if these drugs are misused, they can be really, really dangerous.” One of the greatest concerns among medical professionals is that the rise in Xanax abuse seems to parallel the increase of pain killer misuse as well — it’s “especially concerning in light of the dramatic rise in nonmedical use of opioid painkillers like oxycodone [Oxycontin] and Vicodin, because these increases in nonmedical use parallel the rapid rise in accidental overdose deaths in our country,” Dr. Eric Collins, an addiction psychiatrist at Silver Hill Hospital in Conn., told HealthDay. There was a total of 1.2 million ER visits linked to prescription drug abuse in 2011.

"Everyone with prescriptions for sedatives and opioid painkillers should lock them up while they are in use and dispose of them when there are leftover, unneeded supplies," Dr. Lewis Nelson, professor in the department of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, told HealthDay.

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