Xanax can be safe when taken as prescribed over the short-term, but long term use can lead to abuse and dependence, and some people may experience severe side effects.

Xanax is a popular prescription medication. It is in the top 50 most commonly-prescribed drugs in the United States. Mainly prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep problems, Xanax can also be used to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms and seizures. 

Xanax is a prescription medication with legitimate medical uses, so people may think that it is entirely harmless. Unfortunately, some may be unaware of the risks associated with misuse and addiction to Xanax, some of which can be significantly dangerous.

What Does Xanax Do?

A significant part of understanding why Xanax is potentially dangerous involves learning about its effects on the brain and nervous system. Xanax belongs to a class of drugs called benzodiazepines or “benzos,” which were first marketed to the public in the 1960s as a safer alternative to barbiturates. Other benzos besides Xanax that are commonly prescribed include Ativan, Valium, Klonopin and Librium.

Xanax can be dangerous because of the way it affects the brain. According to experts, it acts on neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, called GABA. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the relaxing effects of benzodiazepines because they slow the brain and nervous system’s activity. While this is beneficial and effective for people who struggle with anxiety, panic or sleep problems, it can become harmful with ongoing benzodiazepine use. This is because the nervous system adapts to the effects of benzos on the GABA system. When a person stops taking benzos, the body does not produce sufficient GABA on its own. This can lead a person to become dependent upon these drugs. 

The effects of benzos like Xanax are so strong that even people who take Xanax for just 3-4 weeks can become dependent and begin to experience withdrawal if they suddenly stop taking the drug. Experts, therefore, recommend that doctors limit benzo prescriptions to doses that last for 1-2 weeks. Ongoing use of Xanax can lead to tolerance, causing people to need larger and larger doses. 

Why Xanax is Dangerous in the Long-Term?

Xanax is dangerous not just because it can create tolerance and dependence, but it can also cause negative health effects over time. For example, research has shown that older adults who take benzos, especially for longer than six months, are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

In addition to health problems associated with ongoing Xanax use, the withdrawal that occurs when someone ceases long-term Xanax use can be dangerous. Some people may experience mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, such as the following, according to Harvard Medical School:

  • Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Restlessness
  • Weakness
  • Pain 
  • Blurry vision
  • Racing heart

Long-term benzodiazepine use can also lead to severe withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations or seizures. Recent research suggests benzo withdrawal seizures can sometimes lead to coma or death, adding to the list of reasons why Xanax can be dangerous. 

Why Xanax is Dangerous When Mixed With Other Substances?

Xanax is also dangerous because of the potential for overdose and death that can occur when mixed with other substances like alcohol. People will often mix Xanax with alcohol to amplify the relaxation and sedative effects of the drug, but the side effects can be deadly.

Alcohol, like Xanax, depresses the central nervous system and promotes the activity of GABA in the brain. When Xanax and alcohol are taken together, over-sedation can occur. Over-sedation results in an increased risk of dangerous accidents, extreme respiratory depression and loss of consciousness. A person who has combined Xanax and alcohol may exhibit symptoms such as drowsiness, slurred speech, a slow pulse, troubles with coordination, delirium, seizures and even coma or death.

Overdose is another dangerous risk of taking Xanax. This risk is amplified when Xanax is combined with alcohol or other drugs, but it can also happen on its own if someone takes a large dose. Overdoses involving a combination of Xanax and alcohol are unfortunately common; in 2010, 26.1% of benzo-related deaths involved alcohol. 

The potential for addiction and dependence, long-term health risks such as memory and cognition problems and the dangers of mixing Xanax with other drugs are also reasons Xanax can be dangerous. While Xanax is a drug with therapeutic benefits in some cases, it’s important for people to understand the risks of this drug and take them seriously. Short-term use can be safe when a person takes Xanax as prescribed by a doctor, but ongoing use can be dangerous. 

If you or someone you know needs help stopping the use of Xanax or another drug, The Recovery Village can help. Our addiction professionals are experts in treating addiction to benzodiazepines, other substances and co-occurring mental health conditions. Call today to start the journey to recovery.

a woman wearing glasses and a blazer.
Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
a close up of a person with blue eyes.
Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Fuentes, Andrea; et al. “Comprehension of top 200 prescribed d[…]ing and practice.” Pharmacy (Basel), June 2018. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Harvard Medical School. “Benzodiazepines (and the alternatives).” March 15, 2019. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Brett, Jonathan; Murnion, Bridin. “Management of benzodiazepine misuse and dependence.” Australian Prescriber, October 2015. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Yaff, Kristine; Boustani, Malaz. “Benzodiazepines and risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” British Medical Journal, 2014. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Hu, Xiaohong. “Benzodiazepine withdrawal seizures and management.” The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, January 31, 2011. Accessed June 13, 2020.

McGraw-Hill Medical. “The effect of alcohol on neurotransmi[…]s in the brain.”  June 11, 2018. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Ogbu, Uzor; et al. “Polysubstance Abuse: Alcohol, Opioids[…], and Physicians.” Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, January 2015. Accessed June 13, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.