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Xanax rose to prominence in the 1980s and has been a popular anti-anxiety medication since. However, studies show the habit-forming drug has been responsible for more emergency department visits in the last decade than ever before. Seeking treatment is critical in overcoming Xanax addiction.

  • Drug Name Xanax
  • Addiction Liability Low
  • Scientific Name Alprozolam
  • Street Names Zannies, Z-Bars, Totem Poles, Blue Footballs, Upjohn
  • How It's Used Swallowed, Snorted
  • Side Effects Irritability, Appetite Loss, Fainting, Chest Pain, Mood Swings, Shaking
  • Psychological Dependence Moderate
  • Physical Dependence Moderate

What is Xanax?

Xanax, a brand name of alprazolam, is anti-anxiety medication used to treat anxiety, depression, panic disorders and specific phobias, such as fear of flying.

The depressant is classified as a benzodiazepine, a group of psychoactive drugs that affect the central nervous system. It slows brain activity, leaving users feeling more relaxed and often sleepier. These effects last 15–20 minutes and wear off completely within six hours.

When used properly, Xanax is effective in relieving moderate to severe anxiety and panic disorders. However, consuming the drug for a prolonged period of time or in high doses can increase tolerance. This can lead to addiction.

Young man dealing with stress.

History of Xanax

Xanax was formulated by Upjohn Laboratories in the 1960s to treat anxiety and panic disorders. The pharmaceutical company patented the drug in the 1970s and introduced it to the United States in 1981.

Unlike Valium, a popular anti-anxiety drug of the 1970s, Xanax was marketed as the first drug to reduce panic attacks. This led to a surge in sales.

Today, more than 50 million alprazolam prescriptions are written each year, making it the most popular psychiatric drug and one of the 10 most prescribed medications in the United States. However, its popularity has led to misuse over the years.

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“As more benzodiazepines were prescribed, more people have died from overdoses involving these drugs,” Dr. Joanna Starrels, an associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the Chicago Tribune.

Starrels doesn’t believe the epidemic has received proper attention despite ample evidence supporting its misuse.

Xanax Addiction

Anxiety disorders affect 18 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Nearly 23 percent of these cases are classified as severe.

The number of patients seeking anti-anxiety medications has risen. A study carried out by Albert Einstein College of Medicine found nearly 67 percent more people purchased a benzodiazepine from 1996 to 2013.

An estimated one in 20 U.S. adults fills a benzodiazepine prescription in a given year. A popular drug of choice is Xanax.

Alprazolam is generally prescribed in doses of 0.05 milligrams, 0.25 mg, 1 mg or 2 mg. Dr. Catherine Birndorf, a New York City psychiatrist, says consuming higher doses than prescribed can lead to stronger cravings. This can give way to Xanax dependence or addiction.

As your body acclimates to it, you could end up needing more of it, and sooner, to get the same response.

Dr. Catherine Birndorf told Self magazine

Emergency Department Visits

Nonmedical use of alprazolam led to 123,744 emergency room visits in 2011, more than double the number of visits in 2005, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The drug was used in combination with three or more substances in 21 percent of visits. Nineteen percent of ER visits involved alprazolam only.

ER visits involving alprazolam
Year ER visits
2011 123,744
2010 124,902
2009 112,552
2008 104,762
2007 80,313
2006 65,236
2005 57,419

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

ER visits involving nonmedical use of alprazolam increased from 2005 to 2011 among all age groups. Nearly one-third of these patients in 2011 were aged 25–34, a threefold increase from 2005. More than 14,000 visits that year involved patients aged 55 or older.

Alprazolam-related visits among men and women steadily increased from 2005 to 2011. However, there were nearly 6,000 more male visits than female visits in 2011.

Individuals addicted to Xanax often mix the drug with other substances. Benzodiazepines in combination with opioids or alcohol can cause slow breathing and increase the risk of serious consequences by 24 to 55 percent.

In fact, more than 8,200 people visited an emergency department in 2011 after mixing benzodiazepine, opioids and alcohol. This combination can have profound effects on the body and mind, leading to coma or death.

ER visits involving drug combinations
Drug combination ER visits 2005-2011, patients 12 or older
Benzodiazepines alone 486,997
Benzodiazepines and opioids 249,127
Benzodiazepines and alcohol 163,839
Benzodiazepines, opioids and alcohol 43,069

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Benzodiazepines accounted for 31 percent of prescription drug overdoses in 2013. The overdose death rate jumped from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013.

White males show the highest risk of alprazolam abuse. However, deaths involving blacks and Hispanics continue to rise.

Teen Xanax Abuse

Teens, like adults, grapple with anxiety. However, 80 percent of adolescents with a diagnosable anxiety disorder do not get treatment, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This has led to prescription drug abuse.

Xanax is the most abused benzodiazepine among teens.

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, one in 11 high school seniors reported abusing sedatives and tranquilizers, such as Xanax, in their lifetime. As a result, more than 4,700 children aged 12 to 17 had an alprazolam-related ER visit in 2011.

Illicit use of the drug is common, and teens don’t have to go far to find it. Seven out of 10 teens addicted to Xanax retrieved the pills from their own medicine cabinet. Others may gain access to alprazolam through friends or at parties.

Risks and Side Effects of Xanax

Measured amounts of Xanax can benefit those with anxiety disorders. The drug can relax the muscles and prevent spasms. However, there are risks associated with its use.

Common Xanax side effects include:

Less common, more severe symptoms may also occur. Serious Xanax side effects include:

Chest pains, irregular heartbeat and nightmares occur on rare occasions.

Driving while impaired by Xanax can be problematic. While there are no specific laws associated with the drug, driving under the influence of alprazolam can still lead to arrest.

A study published in Neuropsychopharmacology found that 1 mg of Xanax causes serious driving impairment, reducing alertness and mental effort. The report warned users not to operate an automobile after alprazolam consumption.

Driving while impaired on alprazolam is also an indicator of addiction. Someone addicted to Xanax may also display:

Seeking treatment for Xanax addiction can help users avoid the drug’s side effects and the risk for overdose.

Treatment for Xanax Abuse

Abrupt cessation from Xanax can be painful and produce harmful consequences.

Signs of Xanax withdrawal may include:

The drug’s short half-life makes this process particularly unpleasant. Managing these symptoms at home can be dangerous. Medical assistance is highly recommended to properly combat withdrawal.

Treatment centers provide the necessary assistance to overcome Xanax addiction. Each facility creates a personalized treatment plan specific to the individual. They also offer 24/7 monitoring, medications and a community of support.

Treatment for Xanax addiction includes detox, allowing the gradual purging of the drug from the body. That’s often followed by proven therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy. This approach teaches patients to avoid problematic behaviors and live a healthy life without the drug. Other types of therapy include family-based therapy or contingency management.

Buspirone is a medication used to combat benzodiazepine withdrawal. Flumazenil treats overdose and withdrawal symptoms in long-term benzodiazepine users. However, flumazenil could worsen symptoms in patients with a history of seizures or head injuries.

Next Generation Village in Sebring, Florida, offers treatment specifically for teens suffering from Xanax addiction as well as other substance use disorders. The facility offers treatment in stages, from detox and outpatient care to aftercare.

Seeking the advice of a professional can help prevent dependence. Physicians can educate patients on proper dosage and potential side effects associated with Xanax.

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