Substance Use

Dangers of Mixing Xanax and Alcohol

TABLE OF CONTENTSTable of Contents

white prescription pills spilled out with glass of liquor

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs used to treat anxiety, seizures, and insomnia. At one time, Valium was one of the most popular benzodiazepines but also one of the most commonly abused. In response to Valium misuse, scientists developed Xanax as an alternative.

Medical scientists hoped that Xanax would not be as prone to misuse thanks to its course of action, quicker onset, and shorter half-life. The goal was to avoid euphoric effects and long-lasting sedation and relaxation. However, Xanax is now the single most misused benzodiazepine and one of the top three most misused of all prescription drugs available in the United States. 

Here’s what you need to understand about Xanax, how it impacts the body, the dangers of mixing it with other substances, and the best path to recovery.

What Is Xanax?

Xanax was developed to be a quick treatment for muscle spasms, insomnia, and anxiety. As a type of benzodiazepine, Xanax works by helping the body relax. Xanax is highly effective when used as prescribed, but it can easily be misused in the wrong hands.

When developing Xanax, medical scientists hoped to develop a drug similar to Valium, but with fewer side effects and a reduced risk of misuse. Alprazolam is the active ingredient in Xanax, and its course of action differs from Valium. Alprazolam produces a calming effect by enhancing the effects of GABA, a naturally occurring chemical within the body.

When a person takes Xanax, the medication quickly enters the bloodstream where it makes its way to the brain and central nervous system. Xanax then interacts with GABA, which naturally blocks and controls impulses in the central nervous system. That’s what induces the sensation of relaxation and relief that Xanax is known for.

Are Benzodiazepines Addictive?

Benzodiazepines are among the most prescribed of any drug class in the United States thanks to their many uses. Medical professionals might prescribe benzodiazepines as a muscle relaxant or for anxiety, insomnia, or seizures. Benzodiazepines are also used during the detox and treatment process for some addictions, such as alcohol recovery.

Benzodiazepines were developed to replace barbiturates, a class of drugs that were highly misused and came with severe side effects. While benzodiazepines have less severe side effects than barbiturates, they are commonly misused by the public. In fact, benzodiazepines are listed as a Schedule IV controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) because they have a moderate potential for physical dependence and misuse. 

In general, benzodiazepines are not designed to be long-term medications, even when used for their intended purpose. This is especially true with Xanax, where the average prescription lasts no more than 4 months for anxiety — and even less for some other disorders. The medical use of Xanax is highly controlled, with the drug given in small doses, for short periods of time, and then tapered off gradually. Those who are misusing Xanax can easily grow dependent on the drug. 

Prevalence of Xanax Misuse

Prescription drug abuse is truly an epidemic in the United States. More than 20% of all people over the age of 12 say that they have misused a prescription medication at least once before. Interestingly, while researchers set out to produce a drug that was less likely to be misused, the properties of Xanax that they thought would make it less appealing ended up being exploited. 

The fact is that prescription medications like Xanax are more likely to be misused because more prescriptions are written for them. In the case of Xanax, many doctors began prescribing it to patients, perhaps more easily than they would Valium or another alternative. This uptick in prescriptions meant that more Xanax was in the hands of consumers, and that led to a greater influx of Xanax on the illicit drug market.

Some people lie to their doctors to get a Xanax prescription while others sell their extra Xanax on the black market. Xanax can also be illegally imported into the United States, along with other drugs. Unfortunately, misusing Xanax poses great risks, especially since people tend to mix Xanax with alcohol or stimulants. 

Why Do People Misuse Xanax?

The first characteristic that encourages misuse of Xanax is the quick onset. Very shortly after taking Xanax, it enters the bloodstream and begins to impact the brain and body. For those taking Xanax in large doses, this can lead to a rush of psychoactive effects. 

The second characteristic of Xanax that increases the likelihood for misuse is the short half-life. A drug’s half-life specifies how long it takes to be out of your system completely. In the case of Xanax, a short half-life combined with a fast onset means that people can experience strong effects but only briefly. For some, the brief effects make Xanax more appealing than other drugs because it means they can return to a state of normal sooner.

Xanax is also highly potent. The idea behind Xanax was that it could quickly and briefly induce relaxation to help someone come down from anxiety or go to sleep when suffering from insomnia. However, for those misusing Xanax, its potency means it can produce very strong effects, even when taken in relatively small doses. 

Lastly, Xanax was marketed as a safer alternative to Valium, which is true when a doctor is guiding the patient. However, that notion misled many people to believe that Xanax is also safer for recreational users. In reality, Xanax is just as dangerous as any other drug when it’s used incorrectly.

What makes Xanax misuse particularly dangerous is that most people do not use benzodiazepines alone. Users typically take benzodiazepines along with another substance, and it’s the act of mixing benzodiazepines (such as Xanax) with another substance (such as alcohol) that intensifies the effects and risks.

The Dangers of Mixing Xanax and Alcohol

Most individuals who misuse Xanax will choose to combine it with other substances, such as alcohol. The goal of combining drugs is to enhance the effects of one or both substances. In the case of Xanax, combining it means achieving an intense euphoria, elevated sense of well-being, and even a sense of giddiness. The specific combination of Xanax and alcohol poses a number of risks.

On its own, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant (CNS), much like Xanax. Both Xanax and alcohol reduce neuron firing in the central nervous system, leading to a host of side effects. The exact outcome of the Xanax and alcohol combination depends on how much of each a person takes.

With a low dose of Xanax and a low amount of alcohol, a person combining the two may experience elation, euphoria, and deep relaxation. The low dose effect is what most recreational users strive for, but increased substance tolerance over time or accidentally taking too much can put a person at risk of more severe side effects.

As the amount of either substance increases, a person will begin feeling stronger behavioral inhibitions caused by the drug. Those inhibitions can cause poor coordination, clouded thinking, lethargy, and even an altered state of consciousness. At high rates, Xanax and alcohol begin to suppress vital functions, including breathing and heart rate. 

Mixing Xanax and alcohol together can lead to some or all of the following complications:

  • The combination enhances the effects of both drugs, leading to a greater risk of dangerous or fatal activities. A person combining these drugs will experience severely impaired judgment and memory. They may forget how much they have been taking and continue to take more, for example, or they may try to drive or perform some other activity.
  • Xanax is potent on its own, but when it is mixed with alcohol, the risk of overdose greatly increases. A person can suffer a serious overdose even with a small amount of Xanax if they’re mixing it with alcohol. This is because both drugs work together with the same mechanism of action, affecting the body in the same way with amplified sensations.
  • When a person mixes Xanax and alcohol, their system is faced with a major burden. It becomes much harder for their system to process both, and it takes longer for the drugs to exit the system completely. This leads to individuals retaining more Xanax than they typically would because the liver must metabolize the alcohol before it can metabolize the Xanax. 
  • In the long-term, combining alcohol and Xanax can impact cognition and cause permanent issues with memory, attention, and problem-solving, as well as other mental processes. Long-term use can also result in physical side effects, such as liver damage, kidney damage, and cardiovascular system impairment, among others.

In addition to the above, mixing two drugs together can present new risks that an individual has not considered before. For instance, a person may have taken Xanax and alcohol separately in the past, but they may find that combining the two leads to unique interactions in their body that produce uncomfortable or dangerous side effects. Using the two together also poses a greater risk of forming a physical dependence on one or both of the drugs.

Combining alcohol and Xanax is sure to lead to dependence after multiple uses. Unfortunately, untangling the severe withdrawal symptoms that this drug combination can induce isn’t easy. Understanding those withdrawal symptoms and the detox process as a whole is an important step in getting help.

Dependence and Withdrawal

Both alcohol and Xanax have a high misuse potential. Using alcohol and Xanax together regularly represents a rapid habit formation and rapid tolerance development. This means dependence is sure to form over time. Drug dependence is marked by altered body chemistry, where the body has grown so accustomed to having the drug in its system that it does not function properly without it. This means, when someone stops taking Xanax, alcohol, or any other drug they’ve become dependent on, they can experience a range of negative side effects.

The negative side effects associated with reducing or stopping a drug are known as withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms for Xanax can set in within hours of the last dose, and they can be serious. Not only are withdrawal symptoms uncomfortable, but they can also prove life-threatening. That’s why stopping “cold turkey” or suddenly quitting Xanax is not recommended. Instead, you’ll need to work with a medical professional to gradually taper back your dosage.

Withdrawal symptoms will last for the entire period of the detox process. The detox period is however long it takes your body to get the drugs completely out of your system and restore itself back to its normal state. The physical symptoms of withdrawal begin with headaches, blurry vision, numb fingers, sweating, anxiety, panic, paranoia, insomnia, muscle pain, tremors, diarrhea, sensitivity to light/sound, loss of appetite, and heart palpitations. 

Typically, the physical symptoms of withdrawal peak within the first four days of detox, but that doesn’t mean the symptoms are gone. The psychological symptoms of withdrawal can continue for weeks after your last dose, which is why entering a rehabilitation program is essential for ensuring that a person does not relapse. Most often, the long-lasting symptoms of withdrawal are anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, and drug cravings.

Xanax Addiction Treatment Process

Whether a person is using Xanax on its own or in combination with other drugs, such as alcohol, it’s essential that they enter into a proper treatment program. The first step of any treatment program is a thorough assessment of the individual. During the assessment, a medical professional will determine their condition and form a personalized pathway to help them safely and permanently recover.

Assessment

Misuse of any drug can lead to dependence. Once dependence forms, quitting on your own is simply not possible. Dependence leads to the onset of severe withdrawal symptoms that are uncomfortable and even life-threatening, which is why a medical intervention is necessary for recovery. 

If a person is only using Xanax, they’ll be diagnosed with a sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use disorder, which are simply the names for the specific substance use disorders relating to benzodiazepines like Xanax. If a person is using Xanax in combination with another substance, they’ll be diagnosed with a polydrug disorder. If that substance is alcohol, their medical professional will talk to them about alcohol use disorder.

It’s possible for someone to be taking two or more drugs together and only have a dependence on one of them. The purpose of assessment is never to judge but simply to understand the severity of the dependence so that a proper treatment pathway can be established. That’s why it’s important to be honest with your care team about your drug use. The types, amounts, and frequency at which you have taken certain drugs will impact the detox timeline and what therapies are used to help manage your withdrawal symptoms.

Detox Process

As soon as a person finishes the admissions process, which is focused on a thorough and honest assessment, they’ll enter into the detox period. For an inpatient treatment facility, the detox process is fully managed with medical supervision and possibly medications to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. Other therapies, such as talk therapy and wellness classes, may also be available. For a partial hospitalization or outpatient care plan, the detox process may involve take-home medications and multiple weekly meetings.

How long the detox process lasts depends entirely on the individual. No two recovery plans are alike, and that’s what we stress here at Zinnia Healing. Every individual is treated based on their unique circumstances, needs, and goals, which means the timeline varies from one person to the next. In general, though, withdrawal symptoms for Xanax peak within four days, and the hardest part is over within one to two weeks.

Rehabilitation

Once a person makes progress in the detox process, they can enter into the rehabilitation phase of treatment. The rehabilitation phase will likely take some weeks or months to complete, and the timeline remains completely unique to the individual. Rehabilitation typically involves a combination of therapies, including talk therapy, peer support groups, wellness classes, nutrition classes, and more.

Inpatient residential rehabilitation is the most involved of all options, and it will mean residing at a treatment center full time. During rehabilitation, a person will meet with care staff every day while being able to interact with other residents. Activities are often planned, and other amenities, such as fitness centers and movie theaters, are available for use.

For partial hospitalization and outpatient rehabilitation, the individual continues to reside in their own home, but they’ll visit a treatment center or meeting place multiple times a week to speak with their team. Partial hospitalization is more intensive than outpatient rehabilitation and may involve daily meetings depending on the individual’s needs.

Continuing Care

When structured rehabilitation ends, an individual begins to transition back to normal life as they enter the continuing care period. At Zinnia Healing, we are firm believers that a strong support system and ongoing discussions are essential to permanent recovery and avoiding relapse. That’s why we continue to offer the same level of personalized care long after an individual completes structured treatment.

Are you interested in learning more about how Zinnia Healing approaches treatment for Xanax and other addictions? Contact our team today to explore your options and take the first step.