Can Xanax Be Used Long Term? What Are the Dangers?
Xanax is a very popular prescription medication, used for the treatment of anxiety that is caused by generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. As a benzodiazepine, it works by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, which is responsible for promoting calmness and relaxation. It is the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication in the United States.
Intended Duration of Xanax Use
People like Xanax so much because it is very effective at reducing anxiety. However, it is only intended for the short-term treatment of anxiety-related symptoms.
Benzodiazepines are well-known to be habit forming. Use beyond a few months is likely to lead to negative outcomes, such as dependence and addiction.
Even with short-term use of Xanax, people are likely to experience unwanted side effects.
- Drowsiness and fatigue
- Lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting
- Impaired coordination
- Decreased memory
- Nervousness and anxiety
- Muscle twitches and cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Nasal congestion
- Blurred vision
- Skin rash
- Reduced blood pressure
- Changes in appetite and weight
Many of the above side effects are expected to resolve on their own as your body gets used to the new medication. If any of the symptoms persist or worsen, however, they could indicate an allergic reaction or need to stop using Xanax.
Risk of Dependency and Withdrawal
For people who use Xanax for a more extended period of time, there is a high likelihood of developing a dependence on the substance. Tolerance to benzodiazepines is expected to develop almost immediately, while dependence can occur in people after just a couple of weeks of daily use. Most people who use Xanax regularly can expect to develop a dependency on the drug within a month or so.
The risk of developing tolerance, dependence, and addiction to a drug is present with any regular drug use. Tolerance is the first thing to occur, and it happens when you no longer respond to a drug in the same way you did when you first started taking it.
With Xanax, tolerance is likely to develop within just a few days. Tolerance can be a good thing, where your body learns how to metabolize the drug better and you no longer experience negative side effects.
Your body may also become less sensitive to the desired effects of the drug. Your options are then to switch to a different medication that is likely to produce the same effects or increase your dosage of the drug. Increasing drug dosages is risky, as eventually your body will become used to metabolizing that amount of Xanax as well.
Increasing your Xanax dosage in response to tolerance is also more likely to lead to dependence on the substance. You know you have become dependent on a drug if you experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking. These symptoms can be both physical and mental and indicate that your body is having a hard time functioning properly without the drug.
Symptoms of Xanax withdrawal include the following:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Seizures and convulsions
- Irritability and mood swings
- Muscle aches and pains
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heart palpitations
- Panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts
For some people, the risk of experiencing such withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking Xanax is enough not to begin using it in the first place. Some of the above withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety and panic attacks, are considered to be rebound symptoms, or symptoms that Xanax was meant to be targeting in the first place. For some people, withdrawal can cause rebound symptoms that are just as bad or worse than what they had before they began taking the medication.
One of the greatest dangers of using Xanax long term is developing an addiction to it. Tolerance and dependence have the potential to develop within just weeks of starting Xanax, and addiction is rarely far behind.
Physical dependence on a drug does not mean that you are addicted to it, and it is not necessarily a precursor to it either. In many situations, however, dependency develops on the road to addiction.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences. Someone addicted to a drug is unable to stop using it even when they really want to. They are struggling to meet work and social obligations, seem completely consumed with obtaining and using their drug, and generally act out of character.
Someone who is addicted to Xanax has likely been taking it for much longer than they originally intended and taking it in ways other than how their doctor prescribed. The person may even be getting multiple prescriptions for Xanax at once from different doctors or taking Xanax that was prescribed to friends or family members.
Once a habit of drug use has developed into an addiction, participation in a formal substance abuse treatment program is necessary to help the person get sober and learn skills to cope with life without using Xanax.
Dosage Levels and the Risk of Long-Term Side Effects
People who have been taking high doses of Xanax for long periods of time are at increased risks for developing health complications.
The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at the University of Maryland explains that people who have been abusing high doses of short-acting benzodiazepines, like Xanax, are likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Physical withdrawal symptoms, if managed properly, are unlikely to lead to long-term side effects. Psychological withdrawal symptoms, such as cravings and mental health issues, can persist for years.
Studies have also found that people who regularly misuse high doses of Xanax for recreational purposes are more likely to develop a seizure disorder than people who use Xanax medically or not at all. People who consume more than 4 mg of Xanax per day are likely to experience difficult withdrawal symptoms, seizures, and have a difficult time tapering off the drug. People exhibiting any of these issues will require a much longer tapering period than others, sometimes up to six months.
Other researchers have started to link benzodiazepine use and the development of dementia, as seen with Alzheimer’s disease. A 2014 study found that older adults who used benzodiazepines for three to six months were at a 32 percent increased risk of developing dementia. Adults in the study who had used benzodiazepines for more than six months demonstrated an 84 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In general, the greater cumulative amount of benzodiazepines that were consumed indicated a higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Reduce Dangers of Xanax Use
The best way to reduce the dangers of Xanax use is by only using it for medical purposes as instructed by your doctor. Keep dosage levels to a minimum and the duration of use short term to ensure safe use.
Even though Xanax is highly affective at treating symptoms of anxiety, it is important to develop alternative techniques for managing stress and anxiety on a long-term basis.
Benzodiazepines. (October 2013). University of Maryland: Center for Substance Abuse Research.
Benzodiazepine Use and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: Case-Control Study. (September 2014). The BMJ.
How to Recognize and Treat Xanax Addiction. (June 2018). Healthline.
Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction: What’s the Difference? (January 2017). National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens.
What You Need to Know About Xanax. (December 2017). Medical News Today.
Xanax. (March 2017). RxList.
Xanax (Alprazolam) Withdrawal Symptoms + Timeline. (April 2014). Mental Health Daily.