News & Press: Patient Safety

Alert: Opiod/Benzodiazepine Interactions Causing Major Risks/Death—FDA Requires Boxed Warning

Wednesday, August 31, 2016  
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ISSUE: A review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found that the growing combined use of opioid medicines with benzodiazepines or other drugs that depress the central nervous system (CNS) has resulted in serious side effects, including slowed or difficult breathing and deaths. Opioids are used to treat pain and cough; benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. In an effort to decrease the use of opioids and benzodiazepines, or opioids and other CNS depressants, together, FDA is adding Boxed Warnings, their strongest warnings, to the drug labeling of prescription opioid pain and prescription opioid cough medicines, and benzodiazepines. See the FDA  Drug Safety Communication for a listing of all approved prescription opioid pain and cough medicines, and benzodiazepines and other CNS depressants.

FDA conducted and reviewed several studies showing that serious risks are associated with the combined use of opioids and benzodiazepines, other drugs that depress the CNS, or alcohol (see the FDA Drug Safety Communication for a Data Summary). Based on these data, FDA is requiring several changes to reflect these risks in the opioid and benzodiazepine labeling, and new or revised patient Medication Guides. These changes include the new Boxed Warnings and revisions to the Warnings and Precautions, Drug Interactions, and Patient Counseling Information sections of the labeling.

FDA is continuing to evaluate the evidence regarding combined use of benzodiazepines or other CNS depressants with medication-assisted therapy (MAT) drugs used to treat opioid addiction and dependence. FDA is also evaluating whether labeling changes are needed for other CNS depressants, and will update the public when more information is available.

Opioids are powerful prescription medicines that can help manage pain when other treatments and medicines cannot be taken or are not able to provide enough pain relief. Benzodiazepines are a class of medicines that are widely used to treat conditions including anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.

Health care professionals should limit prescribing opioid pain medicines with benzodiazepines or other CNS depressants only to patients for whom alternative treatment options are inadequate.  If these medicines are prescribed together, limit the dosages and duration of each drug to the minimum possible while achieving the desired clinical effect.  Warn patients and caregivers about the risks of slowed or difficult breathing and/or sedation, and the associated signs and symptoms.  Avoid prescribing prescription opioid cough medicines for patients taking benzodiazepines or other CNS depressants, including alcohol.

Patients taking opioids with benzodiazepines, other CNS depressant medicines, or alcohol, and caregivers of these patients, should seek medical attention immediately if they or someone they are caring for experiences symptoms of unusual dizziness or lightheadedness, extreme sleepiness, slowed or difficult breathing, or unresponsiveness.

Healthcare professionals and patients are encouraged to report adverse events or side effects related to the use of these products to the FDA's MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program:

  • Complete and submit the report Online:
  • Download form or call 1-800-332-1088 to request a reporting form, then complete and return to the address on the pre-addressed form, or submit by fax to 1-800-FDA-0178

Read the MedWatch safety alert, including a link to the FDA Drug Safety Communication, at:

 Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (Accessed: 08/31/2016)

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