Some of the most widely prescribed anti-anxiety medications may raise the risk of contracting pneumonia and dying from it, according to a new study from the UK.
The study found that people taking Valium, Ativan or Restoril were 54 percent more likely to get pneumonia than those not taking these drugs. They also had a 22 percent higher risk of dying from the infection, within 30 days of being diagnosed with pneumonia, and 32% more likely to die within 3 years of diagnosis compared with individuals not taking the medications.
England researchers say the drugs appear to weaken the immune system.
They are also frequently used as a sedative in critically ill patients.
Specifically, the researchers found that Valium, Ativan, and Restoril, but not Librium, were associated with increased incidence of pneumonia. All 4 medications, individually, were associated with increased long-term risk of death.
Benzodiazepines act by depressing the central nervous system. In addition to their use in treating anxiety and insomnia, they also are used as anticonvulsant medications and as muscle relaxants.
It is estimated that about 2% of the populations in the United States and United Kingdom, and up to 10% of the elderly populations in those countries, have taken benzodiazepines for 12 months or more.
The researchers said that although benzodiazepines are widely prescribed, little is known about their effects on the immune system. They decided to study the association between benzodiazepine use and pneumonia, noting that past research has linked benzodiazepines to a higher risk of infections and death in critically ill patients.
One study found that benzodiazepines doubled the risk of secondary infections in critically ill patients compared with the use of other types of sedatives. The authors of the current study wanted to know if the risk also extended to those in the general population who are not critically ill.
The authors analyzed the health records of about 5,000 British patients with a reported diagnosis of pneumonia that occurred between 2001 and 2002, using a United Kingdom primary care patient database called The Health Improvement Network. They compared them to controls that were matched for age and sex. They looked at those people who had prescriptions for benzodiazepines. The majority with prescriptions were defined as “chronic users” because they had prescriptions filled 30 days and 90 days before the illness, indicating ongoing use.
Those patients who had gotten pneumonia were more likely to have had pneumonia in the past, to have had other serious illness, including a heart attack, depression, and psychotic illness, and to be current smokers than those in the comparison group. However; even when these factors were controlled for, patients who had taken benzos had a significantly higher risk of pneumonia. That risk was the same regardless of the subject’s age.
“Based on our study, patients should not stop taking benzodiazepines if they have been prescribed by their physician,” said Dr. Robert D. Sanders, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College in London. If you have concerns, discuss it with your doctor, he said.
The researchers concluded that their findings do not definitively prove that benzodiazepines cause pneumonia, yet called for further, more rigorous study to explore the link, because benzodiaspines are so widely used.