There is a misperception that all prescription drugs are safe simply because a doctor has approved their use. However, every drug has certain risks, depending on the person taking it and on the ways in which the drug affects the body and brain. When a person develops physical or mental symptoms when taking a medicine or drug, the result is referred to as side effects. Side effects can be mild, severe, or even life-threatening.
In particular, if a person misuses or abuses a medication like Xanax, there is a wide range of side effects that can occur. Xanax, a type of benzodiazepine, works by slowing the speed of messages traveling through the brain and around the body. This can cause a number of side effects that can be slightly uncomfortable or lead to major health risks in the future.
Xanax for Treating Anxiety
The main use of Xanax (also known as alprazolam) and similar benzodiazepines is to calm conditions related to excessive nervous activity. The National Library of Medicine lists some of the conditions most often treated in this way, which include:
- Seizure disorders
- Panic disorders
- Mood disorders and depression
Xanax treats these conditions by reducing the speed of activity in the brain, which is why it is referred to as a central nervous system depressant. It is also sometimes referred to as a sedative. Because of this, drugs like Xanax can also be used to calm individuals before surgery or other medical procedures, as they help to relieve the person’s anxiety.
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Mild Side Effects
Because medications change the way a person’s body functions, there is always a risk of side effects. Sometimes side effects are only mild, meaning that they only cause slight discomfort, and others will even go away after a time, once the body adjusts to the presence of the drug, especially if the person is taking a long-term prescription.
The side effects that are caused by Xanax are often directly related to the way it slows brain activity. As described by Medical News Today, mild side effects from Xanax use include:
- Delayed reactions
- Sleepiness or low energy
- Slowed heart rate and breathing
These side effects often occur when starting to use the drug but may fade over time as the brain and body become used to the medication.
Severe Side Effects
Severe side effects, while rarer, can still happen with use of Xanax, and they are more likely to happen if the drug is abused. These include:
- Stopped breathing
- Hallucination, hostility, and aggression
- Allergic response, including anaphylaxis
- Suicidal thoughts
The most severe side effects, as described by an article on Benzo.org, include dementia and other symptoms of brain damage or abnormalities. Some studies, such as one from the International Journal of Medical Sciences, indicate that using benzos like Xanax increases the chance of developing degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
How Likely Are Side Effects
It used to be believed that major side effects from Xanax use, including addiction, were rare. However, more recent experience and research demonstrate that severe side effects are more likely to happen the longer the person takes the drug. In the case of dementia, as described above, the risk increases relative to how long the person takes the medication.
The likelihood of experiencing some side effects of benzos like Xanax increases if the person is using another type of sedative substance, such as alcohol or opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, or heroin, because these can cause side effects similar to those caused by Xanax, which can increase the effect. In fact, the risk of combining sedatives is so strong that it mandates a warning, like the one included in the drug information for alprazolam through the NLM’s Medline Plus.
One of the major risks of taking Xanax, particularly in high doses or for longer than a month, is the severe withdrawal syndrome that can occur. When a person takes a benzodiazepine long-term, the brain can become highly dependent on having the drug in the body, stopping production of the natural brain chemicals that would normally serve the function of Xanax or losing functionality of the receptor cells. When this happens, the body can’t function properly if the drug is stopped.
With Xanax, this can be dangerous because it can be a shock to the brain to suddenly return to a higher level of stimulation. As described by the Ashton Manual, the resulting symptoms include, among others:
- Increased heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- Increased anxiety
In particular, the seizures related to abruptly stopping benzo use can be life-threatening. As a result, it is important to get help from an experienced doctor before stopping benzo use in order to avoid these potential withdrawal effects.
Short-Term and Long-Term Physical Effects
Side effects of many drugs, even when mild, can cause changes in the body, either in the short-term or long-term. For this reason, it is important to understand the risks of side effects. For example, while the effect of Xanax on heart and breathing rates seems mild, such as slowed respiration or occasional heart arrhythmia, this can cause damage to these body systems over time. The result might be heart disease or a lower amount of oxygen going to the brain, which can lead to stroke or brain damage.
Short-term effects of Xanax that can similarly cause long-term damage include:
- Heart arrhythmia, leading to palpitations, stroke, and other heart disease
- Slowed respiration, decreased oxygen to the brain (hypoxia), and potential brain damage
- Potential shrinkage of parts of the brain
Not all of these physical effects will be experienced, and some are inconclusive in research, However, the potential for damage to physical and mental structures in the body is nevertheless cause for concern and prudence in using or prescribing these medicines.
Abuse of Xanax
Addiction can form as a side effect of Xanax, usually through misuse or abuse of the drug. Contrary to original studies, Xanax and other benzodiazepines are highly addictive, as described by a study from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. If used for longer than a month to six weeks, a benzodiazepine can change brain chemistry enough to make the person dependent on the drug. This is part of what leads to the withdrawal syndrome described above.
The result of this dependence can be addiction. In particular, a person who misuses Xanax either by using the drug more often or at higher doses than prescribed risks creating a cycle of tolerance – a case in which the person’s body becomes used to the drug’s effects, causing the person to feel the drug isn’t working as well and then increasing the dose again. This cycle can lead to addiction – a situation where the person can no longer control use of the drug.
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When a person develops addiction to Xanax or any similar drug, the risks of drug side effects are increased. At that point, it is important to get support from a treatment program that understands and is accustomed to the needed caution in helping a person wean off and stop use of Xanax. Working with an accredited, reputable, research-based treatment program is a good way to make sure the treatment professionals have this kind of experience and knowledge.
Through a slow process of tapering off Xanax, the individual struggling with abuse and addiction can stop use of the drug safely and learn to manage triggers and cravings for use. If this is done early enough, the long-term risks of using Xanax can potentially be avoided.