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Xanax Overdose and Side Effects (of Addiction)

The drug Xanax (alprazolam) is a medication classified as a benzodiazepine. The benzodiazepines were developed as less addictive alternatives to another group of drugs known as barbiturates; however, benzodiazepines remain significant drugs of abuse, particularly as secondary drugs of abuse that are used with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol or narcotic drugs, or in conjunction with stimulants.

Xanax was actually developed as a less addictive alternative to its fellow benzodiazepine Valium (diazepam). Xanax has a relatively short onset of action and half-life, and therefore remains in the system for a shorter period of time than Valium does. Xanax is primarily prescribed for the treatment of anxiety, as a muscle relaxant, and to initiate sleep. In some cases, it can also used as a treatment for seizures; however, because of its short onset and duration of action, other more long-acting benzodiazepines are preferred for this use.

Xanax and all benzodiazepines are classified as central nervous system depressants (some sources may refer to benzodiazepines as sedatives). Central nervous system depressants primarily function by decreasing the actions of the neurons in the brain and spinal cord. They do this by working on a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. The function of GABA is to slow down the functioning of the central nervous system, keep things from getting overexcited, and modulate the activity of the brain and spinal cord. Without inhibitory neurotransmitters to balance the functioning of the central nervous system, the system would continue to fire at accelerated rates, and this could lead to damage. The therapeutic uses of benzodiazepines are based on their ability to increase the levels of GABA in the system.

These drugs are classified as controlled substances by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (Schedule IV). While they do have significant medical uses, they are also drugs that can be abused and have the potential to cause psychological and physical dependence in people who use them for extended periods.

Xanax Overdose

Xanax is a relatively quick-acting benzodiazepine. It has a high potency (meaning that small amounts are very effective), a quick onset of action (meaning that its effects are felt rather quickly after taking it), and a relatively short half-life of about 11 hours on average (meaning that it is eliminated from the system through normal metabolic processes relatively quickly). These three clinical aspects of the drug make it effective for certain medical issues, such as helping people go to sleep or relieving panic attacks.

Even individuals who take a significant amount of the pills will most likely not experience a serious overdose unless the amount is extremely excessive. The actual dosage level that will produce an overdose depends on the individual taking the drug, if they are mixing it with other drugs, and how they take it. People who use the drug in ways that are inconsistent with the prescribed uses, such as crushing pills and snorting them or mixing them with water and injecting the substance are far more susceptible to overdose issues.

Another complicating factor regarding abuse of Xanax is that it is often abused in conjunction with other drugs. When Xanax is mixed with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol, other benzodiazepines, or even narcotic medications, the risk of overdose becomes very significant. When an individual abuses and mixes different drugs with the same mechanism of action, these mixtures can enhance the potential dangers of either drug separately, and this can increase the risk that one can overdose on amounts that they may not perceive as excessive. Individuals abusing Xanax with stimulants will be desensitized to the effects of both drugs, and the potential to overdose on either drug can increase.

A third major issue with Xanax and other benzodiazepines is that these drugs induce tolerance in individuals very rapidly. Tolerance occurs when a person finds that they need more of the drug to achieve effects that they once got at lower doses. Individuals who repeatedly abuse Xanax may develop tolerance levels that are quite significant. When these people attempt to quit using Xanax and have not taken the drug for a while, their tolerance level sharply decreases. If they relapse during recovery, they may take more of the drug than their body can eliminate it. Their previously high tolerance levels left them with the impression that they can take significantly higher amounts of the drug than their body can handle. Thus, even though the immediate psychoactive effects of the drug may be perceived as diminishing, there still may be relatively high levels of the drug in the person’s system because the individual is taking amounts they can no longer tolerate, and the person is at risk for overdose.

Finally, elderly people or individuals who are emotionally unstable may overdose on Xanax by taking the drug in larger amounts than prescribed, more frequently than prescribed, or as a result of having multiple prescriptions to drugs that produce toxic interactions.