A Deadly Combination
Both Xanax and alcohol are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, meaning that they decrease neurological activity in the body and brain. This depressant effect can result in life-threatening complications such as coma, respiratory failure, and death.
Alcoholism (or alcohol use disorder) is a condition characterized by excessive alcohol consumption despite the presence of adverse effects on one’s life and relationships. Similarly, Xanax use disorder is an addiction in which the user becomes dependent upon the anti-anxiety benzodiazepine (benzo) alprazolam.
Using alcohol in addition to Xanax dramatically increases these risks and is far more dangerous than the overuse of either substance alone. Many overdoses related to benzodiazepines also involve other drugs or alcohol and continue to be one of the leading causes of accidental death in the United States.
Long-Term Effects of Xanax and Alcohol Abuse
Those who abuse Xanax and alcohol concurrently for an extended period of time increase their risk of serious adverse effects, such as the following:
- Mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts
- Accidents and injuries
- Interpersonal problems
- Poor school or work performance
- Legal problems such as drinking and driving events
- Memory loss
- Shallow breathing
- Anoxic brain injury due to repeated episodes of respiratory arrest
- Chronically low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Liver cancer and/or cirrhosis
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Cardiomyopathy (heart disease)
- Arrhythmia (irregular heart rate)
- Cancers of the mouth, throat, and breast
Xanax is indicated to treat health conditions such as anxiety, panic disorder, and insomnia. Due to its high potential for addiction, however, it is frequently abused. In fact, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that in 2011, nearly 1 in 10 of all emergency department visits involving pharmaceutical abuse included the use of Xanax.
Xanax can be very dangerous when taken in large/frequent doses or in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs. When combined with alcohol, even a small dose can be life-threatening. Persons who become dependent on Xanax and other benzodiazepines exhibit symptoms which may include, but are not limited to the following:
- Light-headedness and vertigo
- Sleeping for extended periods of time
- Cognitive impairment
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dry mouth
- Slurred speech
- Impaired motor skills
Xanax withdrawal symptoms can develop within a few hours of the last dose, and tend to peak in severity within 1-4 days. Symptoms of Xanax withdrawal include, but are not limited to the following:
- Blurred vision
- Muscle aches and pain
- Tremors and nervousness
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Loss of appetite
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Heart palpitations and rapid heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Anxiety and panic
Signs/symptoms of severe CNS depression and overdose include the following:
- Memory problems
- Shallow, labored breathing
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Faint heartbeat
- Extreme drowsiness
- Impaired coordination
- Loss of consciousness/responsiveness
- Respiratory arrest
Getting the Right Treatment
Treatment for Xanax addiction may involve a taper down method as directed by a physician to reduce cravings and symptoms of withdrawal.
Severe addictions often require a medical detox and extended participation in inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment as well as long-term aftercare. Treatment, at a minimum, should consist of several weeks of behavioral therapy, individual and group therapy, and individual and family counseling.
Signs and Symptoms Throughout the Stages of Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholism is a lifelong, complex condition and those who do not receive treatment continue to suffer consequences that tend to worsen over time. Chronic alcohol abusers increase their risk of serious illness and death due to alcohol-related causes.
According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use resulted in approximately 88,000 fatalities and 2.5 million years of potential life lost every year between 2006–2010 in the United States, shortening the lives of those affected by an average of 30 years.
Alcoholism results in many of the same mental/physical side effects and withdrawal and overdose symptoms as Xanax addiction. And as noted, combining the two substances can lead to effects that are both compounded and unpredictable.
The Early Stage
The early stage of alcoholism begins with experimentation. Most people first try alcohol in their teens or early adult years. In fact, according to the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDA), nearly two-thirds (60%) of teens have consumed alcohol by age 18.
Experimentation often tends to be sporadic, with drinking occasionally occurring at parties, sporting events, or concerts. Some young people, however, move quickly from initial use into regular consumption that can result in negative consequences. Others may never leave this phase, and either continue to drink infrequently or not at all.
The Middle Stage
The middle stage occurs when alcohol use progresses into binge drinking (more than five drinks in one sitting) or daily drinking. Problems begin to happen on a regular basis and may involve legal issues such as drinking and driving or work/school obligations missed due to being intoxicated or hungover. Interpersonal relationships with family and friends may also begin to suffer.
The middle phase is sometimes referring to as high-functioning alcoholism. Moreover, the person is drinking excessively but still manages to function reasonably well in daily life despite some problems that manifest.
But during this phase, however, tolerance can start to develop and drinking patterns may continue to escalate. At this point, some people will attempt to quit or cut back. Some succeed, but those who do not become at risk for long-term mental/physical health issues and other adversities related to alcoholism.
The Late Stage
The late stage of alcoholism occurs when dependency develops, and withdrawal symptoms manifest when the user stops drinking abruptly. He or she has now developed a high tolerance, and increasing amounts of alcohol are needed to achieve a “buzz.” The brain has, at this point, essentially been hijacked by alcohol and can’t function properly without it.
Alcoholics at this stage almost always require intense, professional intervention to recover and maintain long-term sobriety. Those who do choose to seek treatment have the opportunity to undergo a medical detox and engage in either inpatient or outpatient therapy, counseling, and other activities that promote healthy behaviors and decision-making.
Engaging in the combined use of alcohol and Xanax use greatly increases both the short- and long-term risks associated with either substance, as well as the possibility of serious injury, illness, or death.