Whitney Houston’s death draws attention to dangerous drug combinations

Whitney Houston’s death draws attention to dangerous drug combinations

As seen in The Tulane Hullabaloo

Whitney Houston’s tragic and untimely death surprised much of the nation. She has been honored and remembered during the last week, with special tributes at the Grammy Awards and thousands of status updates blanketing social media to praise her incredible talent. Such a shocking death certainly has not escaped the gossip of the mainstream media. Though the results from her autopsy will not be available for some time, the singer, who has dealt with drug and alcohol addictions in the past, was reportedly abusing a deadly combination of alcohol and Xanax around the time of her death. No one can say as of now what ultimately caused Houston’s death. It is important, however, to realize how dangerous the combination of alcohol and drugs like Xanax can be, especially around Mardi Gras.

Xanax, also known by the generic name alprazolam, is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. Klonipin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam) are included in the same drug class. Similar to alcohol, benzodiazepines work as a depressant in the body’s central nervous system. Specifically, they enhance the effect of an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body called GABA. Enhancing these inhibitory effects in the body can cause sedation, muscle relaxation, sleep-induction, anti-anxiety and amnesic effects.

Because of these inhibitory and sedating effects, benzodiazepines are widely prescribed for a variety of conditions, including anxiety disorders, convulsive disorders, pre-surgical sedation and insomnia. In fact, benzodiazepines are some of the most widely prescribed drugs on the market. One report found that 11-15 percent of the American adult population has taken a benzodiazepine one or more times during the preceding year. When prescribed, used and monitored appropriately, these drugs have many benefits for patients. Benzodiazepines also have potential for abuse.

When used correctly and by themselves, benzodiazepines carry a low risk of acute toxicity. But, when combined with other drugs that have depressant effects, such as alcohol, synergistic effects occur that increase the sedating effects of the drug. This can cause enhanced psychomotor slowing, confusion, slurred speech, dizziness, memory impairment, depression, or increased irritability and aggression. Loss of consciousness and deadly overdoses can also occur.

Benzodiazepine abuse has been on the rise during the last decade. From 1998-2008, the number of those seeking treatment for benzodiazepine-related abuse rose from an estimated 22,400 per year to 60,200 per year. For drug abusers, benzodiazepines are rarely the sole drug of choice. One study found that 80 percent of benzodiazepine abuse is associated with other drug abuse, mostly alcohol or opiates such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and heroin.

Though we do not yet know the cause of Whitney Houston’s death, it is certainly plausible for the combination of Xanax and alcohol to have contributed to it. The synergistic effect of the two drugs can easily and unintentionally harm anyone using the combination. Alcohol can interact with several medications, particularly with medications with depressant effects such as benzodiazepines. Even if a person has been legally prescribed a drug such as Xanax, it does not necessarily make the drug foolproof and safe.

As Mardi Gras approaches, the atmosphere may lend itself to further temptation to mix drugs and alcohol. Double-check with a physician or pharmacist before mixing medications or consuming alcohol with any medications, even if you have a prescription.

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