In Depth

Is Xanax safe?

Soaring number of deaths linked to anxiety drug amid increased usage among teens

Concerns are growing about the popularity of Xanax as newly revealed data shows the number of deaths linked to the anxiety drug is soaring in the UK.

Since 2015, at least 204 people have died after taking Xanax - the brand name for the drug alprazolam - or a counterfeit version of the medication, according to figures seen by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

The coroner for Northern Ireland, Joe McCrisken, told the broadcaster that is recording an alprazolam-related death almost every week.

And he warned: “The deaths are a very tiny tip of what is a very huge iceberg.” 

What does Xanax do?

Xanax is widely prescribed in the US to treat anxiety and panic attacks. It is not available through the NHS but can be obtained on private prescription in the UK.

Essentially a tranquiliser, the drug works by attaching itself to the brain’s main inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. This results is an increased release of the inhibiting neurotransmitter, which calms your central nervous system, says GP and health writer Dr Nick Knight in GQ.

“Basically, your head gets put in the freezer for a while,” he concludes.

Counterfeit versions of the class C drug “are often bought via the dark web, and mixed with other substances, which makes it extra dangerous”, says the BBC.

The drug, or similar versions, was found to have played a part in the accidental deaths of actor Heath Ledger, singer Whitney Houston and conspiracy theorist Max Spiers, among others.

Is it safe when taken properly?

The main reason Xanax is not available in the UK is because it is faster acting and much stronger than Valium, the trade name for diazepam, which you can get through the NHS.

“The best way to use these medications is definitely under the supervision of your doctor, and being honest with all of your doctors about your prescriptions,” Erin Parisi, a licensed mental health counsellor in the US, told Bustle.

British GP Knight agrees. “If you are in a position where you think you need a benzodiazepine drug like Xanax then you should be seeing your doctor anyway,” he says.

Pfizer, the company that developed Xanax as a prescription drug, told the BBC it was “alarmed by the rise” of counterfeit versions and was working “side-by-side with all law enforcement” to tackle the problem.

The pharmaceutical giant added that Xanax was “subject to strict regulations” and “should only be used as prescribed by and under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner”.

Why are people dying?

The increase in deaths has been attributed to two key factors - increasing amounts of counterfeit Xanax being sold online, and soaring usage among teenagers, many of whom are self-medicating without an idea of the correct dosage or risk of addiction.

A UK survey of around 85,000 people, most of them teens, by Vice last year found that 35% of respondents had friends who took Xanax.

Only 6% of those polled said they were unaware of the drug. This “indicates not only a high usage but a developed awareness of the drug”, notes the magazine.

A source who claimed to be a drug dealer told Vice: “I would highly recommend anyone never, ever, ever touch Xanax. Most dangerous drug I have ever encountered.”

GP Knight agrees that users of Xanax should be cautioned about the potential side effects, which include “excessive sleepiness, depression, dry mouth and memory problems”, as well as “links to increased hallucinations, aggression or mania”.

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