In an effort to reduce the rising number of opioid-related deaths, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mandating stronger warnings to caution patients against taking opioid painkillers together with benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, are prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and seizures. Benzodiazepines and opioids both work by depressing the central nervous system, making an overdose more likely.
The FDA said that the two classes of medications are increasingly prescribed together. From 2002 to 2014, prescriptions rose by 41 percent, or about 2.5 million people. Taking both drugs together can lead to extreme sleepiness, coma and death. The FDA reviewed emergency room data and found that the overdose death rate involving benzodiazepines and opioids has tripled from 2004 to 2011. In 2011, a third of opioid deaths involved a benzodiazepine.
The warning labels on both benzodiazepines and opioids already caution against combining the drugs. The FDA announcement means those warnings will be strengthened in an effort to reduce drug overdose deaths. According to the New York Times, deaths from drug overdoses are now more common than car crashes in the United States.
The FDA said the number of opioid users increased 8 percent since 2002 to eighty-one million in 2014. Benzodiazepine users increased 31 percent to 30 million.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing said “I don’t think these warnings have much of an impact,” He said restricting how pharmaceutical companies can market the drugs would be more beneficial. However, health officials say the stronger warning will have an impact because many prescriptions were written by the same doctor and dispensed on the same day. “This is going to reset the conversation about the use of these two products together,” said Dr. Doug Throckmorton, deputy director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the F.D.A., according to NYT.