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What is a Benzodiazepine?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A benzodiazepine is a drug that belongs to a group of drugs commonly called tranquilizers that are prescribed for anxiety and insomnia. If the recommended dosage for the tranquilizer is exceeded or a benzodiazepine is taken for longer than prescribed, dependence and tolerance may result. Tolerance refers to the body getting used to doses of a drug and this causes a need for higher amounts or more frequent use of the substance to get the same effects. Drug dependence is addiction to a substance. Xanax®, Valium® and Librium® are three of the most well known benzodiazepines.

Librium®, or chlordiazepoxide, is the earliest benzodiazepine. It was created in 1954 by Dr. Leo Sternbach, an Austrian scientist. Sternbach was employed by the Hoffmann-Laroche pharmacuetical company and had called his drug "Ro-5-0690" but left it for three years before going back to research it further. When he did, he discovered its tranquilizing effects. Librium is sometimes prescribed to ease acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but care must be taken so that it doesn't become a substitute for a dependency on alcohol.

Valium®, or diazepam, was approved for use as an anxiety reliever in 1963 and can also be used in alcohol withdrawal treatment. Valium® may be used to treat muscle pain. For those with certain nerve or neurological diseases, Valium® may help control tremors, or shaking, yet paradoxically, it can cause these conditions if the user develops a dependence on it.

Xanax®, or alprazolam, was introduced into medical use in 1981 by Upjohn Laboratories. Upjohn later merged with the Pharmacia and then the Pfizer pharmaceutical companies. Xanax® is mainly prescribed for panic and anxiety disorders. It has become one of the most frequently prescribed benzodiazepines worldwide.

If a benzodiazepine is used longer than medically recommended, it's likely that a dependency, or addiction, will result. Benzodiazepines should never be used for more than four weeks. In some cases, the time limit should be closer to two weeks. If the drug is stopped suddenly, side effects similar to alcohol withdrawal such as severe shaking and confusion are likely to be experienced by the benzodiazepine abuser. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines depress the Central Nervous System (CNS), so alcohol and benzodiazepines should never be taken together as this makes an overdose or death more likely.

A drug called Anexate®, or flumazenil, is usually given when a benzodiazepine overdose is suspected. The withdrawal effects of benzodiazepines are both physical and psychological. Tremors, sweating, insomnia, depression and suicidal behaviors may occur during benzodiazepine withdrawal.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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