Dangers of Sedative Overdose

Woman seeming to overdose on sedatives

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According to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug overdose deaths have consistently increased year on year since 1999 with more 64,000 deaths reported in 2016.

Sedative drugs, including barbiturates and benzodiazepines, are among the chief causes. In fact, benzodiazepines have alone accounted for nearly one in seven of these deaths, often when combined with opioid drugs like OxyContin (oxymorphone) or Vicodin (hydrocodone).

Understanding Sedatives

Sedatives are depressants which act upon the central nervous system to slow down the body's functions. They are usually prescribed as ​tranquilizers or sleeping pills to ease anxiety or enable sleep. The two main types of sedatives are​ barbiturates and benzodiazepines.

Some of the more commonly prescribed barbiturates include:

  • Luminal (phenobarbital)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital)

In recent years, benzodiazepines have supplanted barbiturates as the sedative drug of choice. Among the most commonly prescribed are:

  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Tranxene (clorazepate)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)

Causes of Overdose

As sedatives work by depressing the central nervous system, the overuse of the drugs can slow body functions to such a degree as to cause unconsciousness, respiratory failure, and death.

An overdose may be deliberate with the aim of committing suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Sedatives are commonly used to this end because they are perceived to cause no pain. However, not all suicide attempts succeed as vomiting is common when the drug is taken in excess. If this happens, the person may survive but end up with brain damage due to the lack of oxygen.

By contrast, an accidental overdose can occur if the user takes too much of a sedative or combines it with other drugs the enhance the depressive effects. Accidental overdoses tend to occur for three reasons:​

  • A person can become dependent on sleeping pills but, over time, become less responsive to the drug. In a desperate attempt to get sleep, a person may end up taking too many.
  • A recreational user who has moved from taking pills to injecting the drug can sometimes miscalculate the dosage.
  • From 2002 to 2015, the rate of overdose deaths involving the combined use of sedatives and opioids has doubled. Today, the majority of sedative-related overdose deaths occur for this reason.

Signs of a Sedative Overdose

Signs of an overdose of sedatives are similar to those of alcohol, which is also a depressant. Slowing the brain function initially affects the parts of the body which control voluntary functions. When a person overdoses, the drug can begin to affect the person’s involuntary functions, such as breathing and heart rate.

Symptoms of a sedative overdose include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteadiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness or fainting spells
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to think or respond normally
  • Slowed respiration
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Increasing coldness of the skin
  • A bluish tinge to the lips, fingers, and skin (cyanosis)
  • Unconsciousness
  • Shock
  • Coma

Emergency Treatment

People who have overdosed on sedatives will be admitted to the hospital and monitored closely, usually in intensive care. Approximately one in four overdose deaths occur after a person has been admitted.

Treatment may involve some or all of the following:

  • A stomach pump
  • Administration of activated charcoal to absorb the excess drug
  • Medications to flush the drug through the bowels or urinary tract
  • Administration of intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and stabilize body functions
  • A respirator if breathing has been impaired
  • Dialysis to better clean the blood
  • Medications to stabilize heart function
  • Psychiatric care, including a short-term suicide watch

Generally speaking, people can recover from a sedative overdose if treatment is started early. Unless a person has experienced prolonged oxygen deprivation, the effects of the overdose tend to last only as long as the drug remains in the system.

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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Overdose Death Rates.

Additional Reading
  • National Institue on Drug Abuse: National Institutes of Health. "Overdose Death Rates." Bethesda, Maryland.