People who regularly drink to excess are also likely to use benzodiazepines, a new study finds.
These drugs -- like Valium (diazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Restoril (temazepam) -- are used to treat depression and anxiety.
But when heavy drinkers use them, benzodiazepines (sometimes referred to as "benzos") may increase the risk for overdoses and accidents and make psychiatric conditions worse, researchers warn.
They found that people who abused alcohol were 15% more likely to take benzodiazepines than moderate drinkers or teetotalers.
For the study, researchers collected data on more than 2 million patients listed in the Kaiser Permanente database.
Specifically, they looked for unhealthy alcohol use -- at least 15 drinks per week for men under 65, and at least eight drinks a week for older men and for women.
They found that 4% of patients had abused alcohol and 8% had filled a prescription for a benzodiazepine within the past year.
However, when problem drinkers were prescribed benzodiazepines, the average dose was 40% lower and 16% shorter than that for moderate drinkers or teetotalers. It's not known if that's due to the prescribing doctors or the patients limiting themselves.
"Some physicians may be refilling prescriptions, unaware that their patients have unhealthy alcohol use. In many cases, patients have been taking benzodiazepines for years and believe them to be harmless," said first author Dr. Matthew Hirschtritt, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
That's a mistaken belief, he said.
"When benzodiazepines are consumed with alcohol, overdose can result from the impact of two central nervous system depressants," Hirschtritt said in a university news release.
"Their effects can reduce motor coordination, impact judgment and decision-making, and result in falls and accidents," he noted. "Long-term use can lead to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, liver, kidney and neurological injury, as well as psychosis or suicidal [thoughts] for those with preexisting psychiatric conditions."
That alcohol abusers were 15% more likely to be prescribed a benzodiazepine was not what the researchers had expected. They expected that it would be harder for problem drinkers to get these drugs.
"In prescribing drugs, physicians weigh the risks and benefits," Hirschtritt said. "While the risks of benzodiazepines for all patients, and especially those with problem alcohol use, are becoming clearer, their benefits may appear to be negligible given that safer prescription drugs are effective for treating anxiety."
The report was recently published in the American Journal of Managed Care.
For more on benzodiazepines, visit the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.