An Explanation of Xanax, Drug Prescribed for Whitney Houston

Xanax (alprazolam)
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While the media is abuzz with speculation about the death of Whitney Houston, who was found dead in the bathtub, it was reported that the singer has been prescribed Xanax, a popular medication taken to treat anxiety. Among the questions about Houston’s demise are those about this drug, and so an explanation of Xanax is in order.

Xanax is a popular but potentially dangerous drug

Xanax (generic name, alprazolam) is a prescription medication that is available both under its proprietary name and in generic form for treatment of anxiety disorders and panic disorder. It belongs to the drug class called benzodiazepines, and its main effect is to reduce abnormal activity or excitement in the brain.

Like all drugs, Xanax is known to cause a number of side effects, and the most frequent side effects associated with its use are drowsiness and lightheadedness. These two symptoms can be extremely dangerous because they can easily lead to individuals injuring themselves or even dying by falling asleep while driving or performing other activities that require concentration.

In fact, reports of adverse events in placebo-controlled trials that evaluated alprazolam in anxiety disorders found that drowsiness was the number one side effect, experienced by 41 percent of participants in the study, followed by lightheadedness in 20.8 percent.
In comparison, 21.6 percent of patients in the placebo treated groups reported drowsiness while 19.3 percent said they had experienced lightheadedness.

In placebo-controlled trials of panic disorder, the use of alprazolam was reported to cause drowsiness in nearly 77 percent of patients, with fatigue and tiredness coming in at almost 50 percent. Reports of impaired coordination came in around 40 percent, with dizziness approaching the 30 percent mark.

In addition to these side effects, use of alprazolam is also known to cause depression, headache, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, nervousness, irritability, aggressive behavior, diarrhea, muscle twitching, loss of sex drive, and anxiety (which, ironically, it is supposed to treat).

How to take Xanax
The typical starting dose of alprazolam for anxiety is 0.25 mg to 0.5 mg taken three times daily. Doctors may increase the dose every three to four days until a maximum daily dose of 4 mg is reached.

For panic disorder, the usual starting dose is 0.5 mg taken three times a day. Doctors can increase this dose by 1 mg per day every three to four days. The typical dose of Xanax for panic disorder is 5 mg to 6 mg daily.

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Xanax also can be habit forming, and should only be used while being monitored by a physician. You should never make dosage changes on your own, and you should also have your dosages reassessed frequently to make sure they are still appropriate for your needs.

Xanax and alcohol should never mix
Anxiety and panic disorders are forms of mental illness, and individuals with mental illness should avoid drinking alcohol. When you combine alcohol with alprazolam, the results can be disastrous, and here’s why.

Both alprazolam and alcohol are central nervous system depressants, and so they both work to slow the brain’s activity. While taking alprazolam alone may cause your brain to downshift from fourth gear to second, adding alcohol could make it slide into first or even neutral.

Alcohol alone can worsen symptoms of mental illness. In addition, people who abuse alcohol are more likely to also abuse Xanax.

Abuse of Xanax is a significant problem. An example can be seen in a July 2011 report in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, in which the authors reported on the death rate for prescription drugs in Florida from 2003-2009. The greatest increase was seen in oxycodone (264.6% rise), followed by alprazolam (233.8%). The investigators noted that “by 2009, the number of deaths involving prescription drugs was four times the number involving illicit drugs.”

People who take Xanax can also be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol. The combination of taking Xanax and drinking alcohol can slow heart rate and breathing rate, which can in turn cause people to lose consciousness, experience difficulty breathing, or even die.

Combining alcohol and Xanax is clearly a recipe one should avoid. Whether this combination was the factor or a contributing one to Whitney Houston’s death is yet to be determined, but it is a message everyone should heed if they take Xanax or similar medications and drink alcohol.

SOURCES:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose deaths—Florida, 2003-2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2011 Jul 8; 60(26): 869-72
TMZ.com
Drugs.com

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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