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What Are Sedatives? Side Effects And Are These Drugs Addictive?

Last Updated: June 9, 2022

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Aside from the over-the-counter sedative drugs (OTC sedatives) like sleeping pills and natural sedatives, there are also prescription sedative pills. These medications are mainly used for the treatment of anxiety, tension, seizures, panic disorders, and sleep disorders. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2015, around 1.5 million Americans at age 12 and above misused these drugs. Although sedative drugs are effective substances when used properly, health dangers, such as overdose, could occur in case they are abused and misused.

What Are Sedatives?

Many drugs are being used to sedate patients, including natural sedatives, but what are sedative drugs? Sedative drugs are prescription and OTC sedatives patients use to manage their stress and tension. At times, these drugs are also used to sedate patients before an operation. Based on a study published in the Saudi Journal of Anesthesia, sedative drugs work by binding to the GABA receptors in the brain. Eventually, this will slow down brain activity which leads to the relaxation of the body.

Furthermore, sedative drugs are controlled substances. According to a psychiatrist from Texas, these drugs, including the substance alcohol, can be misused and abused. They are also related to hypnotics like Ambien, Halcion, and Restoril. Both of these groups of drugs are used to induce sedation and for the treatment of insomnia.

Types Of Sedatives

Sedative drugs are central nervous system depressants and the potency of these drugs varies. Additionally, these drugs are divided into different classes and medical doctors choose a sedative drug depending on the condition of the patient. For example, Benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan are used for the treatment of anxiety while non-Benzodiazepines like Ambien are used to manage sleep disorders. Furthermore, these drugs are available in oral and liquid forms.

The main types of sedative-hypnotic drugs are as following:

  • Benzodiazepines – This group of sedatives works by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA. Eventually, this could induce the muscle relaxant properties of the benzodiazepine drugs. Although benzos are mainly used for the treatment of anxiety, they can also be used for panic and sleep disorders. Some of these benzos include Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Klonopin, and Versed.
  • Barbiturates – Barbiturates promote their sedative effects by inhibiting the activity of the central nervous system, thereby causing CNS depression. Additionally, barbiturates are usually used as anesthetic agents, but they can also be used for the treatment of seizures and insomnia. Some of the barbiturate drugs include Phenobarbital, pentobarbital, Butalbital, Fioricet, and Fiorinal.
  • Non-benzodiazepines – Apart from the benzos, there are also non-benzodiazepines and this group of sedatives works by enhancing the inhibition of GABA receptors in the brain, and they are mainly used to treat sleep disorders. Some examples of non-benzodiazepines include Zolpidem, zopiclone, and zaleplon.
  • First-generation antihistamines – Some antihistamines are also considered sedative drugs and these drugs work by antagonizing the H1 receptors to promote their sedative effects. Usually, these first-generation antihistamines are used for the treatment of anxiety and insomnia. Some examples of these drugs include Benadryl, dimenhydrinate, and brompheniramine.
  • Opioids – Some opioids or narcotics are also considered sedative drugs and they work by inhibiting pain signaling in both the brain and spinal cord, leading to sedation and respiratory depression. Some examples of these drugs include Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Percocet.

Aside from the list above, other medications also come with sedative effects. Some of these include alcohol, general anesthetics, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, and antipsychotics. Patients taking any of these medications should understand the health dangers along with the benefits of using these drugs.

A woman holds water and drinks a sedative drug.

Sedative Side Effects: What Are The Risks?

Based on the report of researchers from Chicago, the prevalence of sedative side effects is low and the adverse reactions were rare, with a rate of 0.05%. In this report, it was also stated that adverse reactions are most common in patients above 55 years old. Moreover, these side effects both affect physical and mental health.

Some of the physical sedative side effects include the following:

  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain at the site of injection
  • Respiratory depression
  • Hypoventilation
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite changes

Aside from the physical sedative side effects, there are also psychological ones. In one clinical trial published in the journal of psychopharmacology, it was reported that impaired performance was seen in one patient after a single dose therapy of lorazepam.

This impaired performance is presented by the following psychological side effects:

  • Difficulty to focus and concentrate
  • Memory loss
  • Slow reaction time
  • Impaired judgment
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts

In case any of these sedative side effects are seen, it is highly advised to seek medical help. For patients addicted to or misusing sedative-hypnotic drugs, a successful recovery can be achieved with the support of experts at rehab centers. An addiction treatment program would be of great help in managing addiction.

Kidney

The use of sedative-hypnotic drugs can also cause kidney injury. Consistent with the study of Anesthesiologists from Denmark, sedatives can increase the risk of kidney injury by decreasing the urine output. Apart from this, those with kidney disorders who use sedatives also increase their risk of further kidney failure. Most of these sedative-hypnotic drugs that affect the kidney include first-generation antihistamines and diazepam.

Reproductive System

The reproductive system is also affected by the use of sedatives. Based on a study published in the Advances in Contraceptive Delivery Systems, sedatives can suppress libido and reduce sperm count and motility. Additionally, libido suppression can increase when patients use alcohol. This also goes the same for women, as their menstrual period can be affected when using sedative drugs.

Sedatives Addiction And Abuse Overview

Many sedative drug users might wonder, are sedatives addictive? Sedatives are controlled substances that are highly addictive. Based on case reports published in the Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, sedative dependence is possible, especially when used with the substance alcohol. Around 102 of 221 patients who are dependent on sedatives continued the use of these drugs until death. In 2020, around 6.2 million people in the United States abused sedative drugs, and the most commonly misused sedatives were barbiturates.

Sedatives Addiction Signs And Symptoms

After answering the question are sedatives addictive, it is important to determine sedatives abuse signs and symptoms. Since children also abuse and become addicted to sedative drugs, knowing these signs is of great help for families to avoid further issues and complications. Even short-term use of sedatives can already show these sedative addiction signs and symptoms.

Some of the physical signs and symptoms of sedatives addiction include:

  • Slurring speech
  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Depressed pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Diminished coordination

Apart from the physical signs and symptoms of sedatives abuse and addiction, there are also psychological ones. According to the American Psychiatric Association, when these drugs are used long-term, these psychiatric symptoms can worsen.

Some of these psychological signs and symptoms of sedatives abuse and addiction include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • ParanoiaConfusion
  • Cognitive deficiencies
  • Inability to focus and/or concentrate
  • Impaired judgment
  • Impaired memory

Aside from these, relationships and careers can also be affected by sedative addiction. Fortunately, there is hope for patients who wish to wean off these drugs safely. Professional support and therapy are available at rehab centers, even during this time of the pandemic.

Who Is Most At Risk Of Addiction To Sedative Drugs?

Everyone who is using sedatives may become at risk of developing an addiction. Also, sedative addiction depends on what type of sedatives is used. For example, according to a study by a psychiatrist from Texas, patients above 64 years old are most at risk of developing an addiction to sedatives prescribed for insomnia. On the other hand, based on the reports of medical doctors from Canada, current and former men smokers, without considering age, are also at risk of this sedative addiction.

Other risk factors for sedatives addiction include:

  • Availability of sedatives
  • Early exposure to sedatives abuse
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Novelty seeking
  • Impulsivity
  • Associating with individuals who abuse sedatives

Take note that it is not easy to wean off these drugs safely. The abrupt stop in the use of sedatives can lead to withdrawal and this is a medical emergency as it can cause fatal seizures, especially when the sedative drugs used are benzos. For safer drug recovery and withdrawal, detoxification is highly recommended.

A woman with a strong headache experiences sedatives side effects and calls her doctor.

Dangers of Sedative Addiction And Abuse

Apart from altering physical abilities and brain functions, sedative use can also cause other health dangers such as overdose, withdrawal, and drug interaction adverse effects. Aside from these, there is also sedative dependence, and the lifetime prevalence of sedative dependence on non-prescribed sedative use is 0.5% while sedative dependence due to misuse is 17%.

Sedative Overdose Risks

Based on the data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of emergency visits due to overdose from sedatives like benzodiazepines is 23.7%. Without opioid use, the rate is 21.0% while with opioid intake, the overdose rate is 34.4%.

Some of the signs of sedative overdose include the following:

  • Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
  • Confusion, agitation, anxiety, and mood changes
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech or acting drunk
  • Amnesia
  • Lack of coordination
  • Hypotonia (lack of muscle tone)
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty breathing or depressed breathing
  • Stupor or unresponsiveness
  • Hallucinations
  • Hypotension (lowered blood pressure)
  • Coma
  • Death

Take note that sedative overdoses may be intentional or unintentional. The former is usually seen in suicidal patients while the latter can happen when sedatives are mixed with other drugs and substances like alcohol.

Sedative Withdrawal Dangers

Aside from overdose, withdrawal is also possible when it comes to sedatives. The prevalence rate of sedative withdrawal is around 34% and based on the clinical review of surgeons from Virginia, 20% of patients may experience severe withdrawal if they leave it untreated. Some of the signs and symptoms of sedative withdrawal include seizures, restlessness, muscle shaking, excessive sweating, nausea or vomiting, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

Drug Interactions with Sedative Drugs

Drug interactions are also among the dangers of sedative drug abuse. These drug interactions can increase the risk of health dangers, including overdose. For example, a sedative drug taken with alcohol provides an additive effect. Eventually, this could lead to extreme drowsiness, coma, and even death.

Aside from alcohol, other drugs and substances that can interact with sedative drugs include:

Most of the drug groups listed above depress the central nervous system. For patients taking sedative medications, including the natural sedatives, it is highly advised to ask for information about these interactions from a pharmacist, especially when patients are taking other medications.

Sedative-Hypnotic Drugs Addiction Treatment

There are different treatment stages in dealing with sedatives addiction and patients addicted to these drugs should consider the detox program as the first step of the recovery process. Despite the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, remember that they begin to fade around three days after the last dose. Many inpatient rehabs and outpatient facilities offer drug treatment and therapy for sedative-hypnotic drugs addiction. In these centers, a relapse prevention plan is also made to achieve a more successful recovery. Sober living homes, support groups or sober companions, and aftercare are crucial to coping with cravings, comorbid disorders, and social problems. There are also online NA meetings that can help patients during this time of the pandemic lockdown.

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Page Sources

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Published on: October 1st, 2015

Updated on: June 9th, 2022

About Author

Peter J. Grinspoon, MD

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is an experienced physician with long-term clinical practice experience. As a former analgesic addict, Dr. Grinspoon knows precisely how important it is to provide patients with effective treatment and support. Medical writing for him is the way to communicate with people and inform them about their health.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.