Drug Facts: Sleep Aids (Prescription) / Benzodiazepines

What is a prescription sleep aid (and why are you mentioning benzodiazepine)?

Unlike over-the-counter sleep aids, which often contain antihistamines and pain killers, prescription sleep aids are typically hypnotics, one of the major forms of which is the substance benzodiazepine, which is a central nervous system depressant.   In fact, benzodiazepines are the most commonly used sleep aids, and include fast-acting (chlordiazepoxide, diazepam, flurazepam, and nitrazepam) and slower-acting (temazepam and triazolam) medications.   While benzodiazepine is often used as a sleep aid, it can also function as a muscle relaxant, as an anti-anxiety medication, or to control seizures, among other purposes.   When used as prescribed, hypnotics have been shown to be effective and reliable for improving sleep quality, decreasing the number of awakenings, increasing total sleep time, and shortening the time that it takes to fall asleep. 

How, why, and how often are prescription sleep aids abused?

Recently published research reveals that the use of prescription pills among younger adults (ages 20-44) doubled between 2000 and 2004, and, during that time, the number of sleep aid prescriptions given to children and adolescents climbed 85%.  Interestingly, abuse of prescription sleep aids is not usually associated with insomnia, but, rather, with excessive dosages and alcohol/other drug use.  Some instances of prescription sleep aids are among the most frequently seized by police; Valium™ (diazepam), for example, was very frequently seized in 2003 (77.46%).  

Addicts typically use high doses of benzodiazepine to enhance the euphoria effects of an opioid, boost methadone or heroin fixes, temper cocaine highs, augment the effects of alcohol, or ease the withdrawal effects of other drugs. 

What problems can arise from prescription sleep aid abuse?

An overdose of benzodiazepine can produce respiratory depression, especially in conjunction with alcohol or other sedatives,  drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, coma, slurred speech, and lack of coordination.   Signs of chronic abuse include anxiety, insomnia, anorexia, headaches, and weakness.  Chronic use can also lead to physical and psychological dependence. 


What else should I know about prescription sleep aids?

Benzodiazepines should not be taken while pregnant or breastfeeding.   Additionally, it is important to be aware that individuals of different ages and metabolisms will respond to different prescription sleep aids differently. 

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  Staff. (2006). Sleep aid abuse getting more attention. Alcohol & Drug Use Weekly, 18(2), 8.

  Yebei, P. (2005). Benzodiazepines. Retrieved online on 7/21/08 from: http://www.drugs.indiana.edu.

  Lessenger, J.E. & Feinberg, S.D. (2008). Abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 21, 45-54.

  Newton, C.R.H. (2005). Benzodiazepine abuse. Retrieved online on 7/21/08 from: http://www.emedicinehealth.com.