Like many other powerful drugs, Xanax can vastly improve the lives of people with serious health problems, but it also has the potential to be dangerous if not used safely.

Xanax is the brand name for alprazolam, part of a group of drugs called benzodiazepines that slow down the central nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic. With this function, it is most often used to treat people with anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, but treats anxiety stemming from clinical depression as well. It is also used sometimes by people who don’t necessarily have these mental illnesses but who experience temporary anxiety, for example, on airplanes.

Because it slows down the central nervous system, it can cause drowsiness or make the user less alert, the National Institutes of Health say. And those are symptoms that could only become stronger — and potentially fatal — if the Xanax is combined with other substances that depress the central nervous system, including alcohol, sleep aids, prescription painkillers and antihistamine allergy medications.

For people with anxiety disorders, the road to good health can be unclear. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

One of the more unexpected interactions is simple grapefruit juice. Livestrong says the fruit affects how the body metabolizes Xanax. Essentially it blocks a specific enzyme, thereby allowing more of the drug to enter the bloodstream. “In effect, your Xanax dosage is increased, which could lead to drowsiness, difficulty with concentration, slowed reaction time, unsteadiness, dizziness, speech problems, difficulty breathing and increased salivation.” People in that situation may even experience an increase in negative mental health symptoms.

Even without those sometimes dangerous combinations, taking Xanax is serious business. The alprazolam page on the National Institutes of Health has a staggeringly long list of potential side effects for the medication. It includes everything from the more serious complications of forgetfulness, pain, suicidal thoughts and slurred speech to the less alarming constipation, dry skin, cramps and even belching. “Some changes that have occurred in people taking this medicine are like those seen in people who drink alcohol and then act in a manner that is not normal. Other changes may be more unusual and extreme, such as confusion, worsening of depression, hallucinations ... and unusual excitement, nervousness, or irritability.”

There are additional risks for people in certain medical circumstances. Pregnant women, for example, could harm their baby if they take alprazolam. It can also exacerbate lung disease and liver disease, according to the NIH.

Addiction is another risk. Narconon explains that because there is so much Xanax in circulation — with 44 million prescriptions written each year — “there is plenty of the drug available for abuse.” In the case of alprazolam, people quickly build up a tolerance to it, requiring them to take more and more to get the desired effect. “Since Xanax is a drug with such high abuse and addiction potential, use of it should be very short-term under close observation of a doctor.”

With all the potential for a negative result, it is important for people with mental health conditions considering using Xanax for treatment to seek a doctor’s help both for guidance beforehand and as a safety precaution while taking the medication.