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Xanax is the brand name of a prescription drug called alprazolam, which reduces anxiety in patients by increasing activity of the brain’s “calm-inducing” neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Physicians typically prescribe Xanax to manage symptoms associated anxiety and panic disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but they may also prescribe it to alleviate nausea for chemotherapy patients. When taken as prescribed, alprazolam is a safe and effective short-term medication, with most patients reporting improvement within a week. The effectiveness of Xanax has made it the most prescribed psychiatric medication in the United States. However, the drug’s widespread availability has also made it susceptible to abuse. A 2018 study showed that about 20% of people taking Xanax, or more than 5 million people, are misusing their medication.

These numbers do not include recreational users who have no prescription, but who seek out the drug from dealers as they would MDMA or other street drugs. For recreational users, Xanax produces an effect similar to that of alcohol, causing feelings of relaxation and sedation. Users often take the drug in bars, known as Zanies or planks.  

When taken outside the direction of a doctor, Xanax can be dangerous and highly addictive. Read on to understand how alprazolam affects the brain and the risks of misusing Xanax.

How Xanax Works

Alprazolam is part of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which doctors use to treat wide-ranging conditions, including anxiety, insomnia and muscle spasms. Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” bind to the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter, a key inhibitory receptor in the brain that helps to slow down the movement of chemicals that cause anxiety. The drug works by enhancing GABA’s natural effects, creating feelings of calm and relaxation.   

Physicians intend Xanax to treat short-term symptoms of anxiety disorders. The drug is not a substitute for behavioral therapy, the most successful, long-term approach to managing anxiety. When using Xanax, patients must recognize its limitations and intended use, while carefully following the direction of a physician.   

Xanax Side Effects

Side effects of Xanax may include drowsiness, fatigue, dizzy spells, trouble sleeping, problems with balance or coordination, headache, muscle weakness, blurred vision and dry mouth. These may all occur with both prescribed and recreational use. However, patients can mitigate side effects by following the guidance of a doctor. Some patients may experience swelling of the extremities, upset stomach and changes in appetite or weight.

Patients prescribed Xanax should also become aware of how it interacts with other commonly prescribed medications, including cold and allergy medications, birth control pills, heart medications, seizure medications and antidepressants. Expectant mothers should also ask their physicians about the risks of fetal abnormalities. Physicians recommend that new mothers refrain from breastfeeding while taking Xanax.   

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Xanax & Opioids

Xanax and opioids have become a popular and dangerous combination with alarming results. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines. Government statistics also show that nearly 1 in 4 people who died of opioid addiction in 2015 had benzodiazepines in their system. A 2016 study further showed that patients were 10 times more likely to lethally overdose when prescribed both benzodiazepines than opioids alone. In response to over-prescription, the Centers for Disease Control changed their guidelines to discourage physicians from prescribing drugs like alprazolam alongside opioids.

Unfortunately, both drugs remain readily obtained through dealers and in clinics. Recreational users may therefore put themselves at continued risk by taking benzodiazepines with opioids. If you struggle with addiction to opioids and have been prescribed Xanax to treat anxiety, it is important that your physician know.   

Xanax Addiction

Although addiction rarely develops with short-term use as prescribed, Xanax can be powerfully addictive when misused. Some clients report taking up to 30 pills a day, or 10 times the recommended dosage. Withdrawal symptoms for those who have become addicted start within 1 to 2 days after the last dose and can last for 2 to 4 weeks. Symptoms typically include:

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble with short-term memory  
  • Aches and muscle tension

Because of the intensity of the symptoms and the dangers that surround relapse, it is important to get professional help when you’re ready to quit. At Sprout Health Group, we understand that it takes courage to ask for that help, and we are committed to providing supportive, personalized treatment that leads to lifelong sobriety. Call us to take the first step toward recovery today.

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.