Valium is a brand name for a drug called diazepam. It’s in a category of drugs called benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants that were first introduced in the 1960s and became some of the most popular prescription drugs in the 1970s. Today they’re used to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and muscle spasms. Valium can be used to treat all of these problems, and it’s also used to treat restless leg syndrome. Valium was the highest-selling medication in the United States through the 1970s.
Like alcohol, Valium is a central nervous system depressant, which means that it achieves its effects by slowing down activity in your brain and body. For that reason, Valium has a few side effects that come as a result of this effect on your nervous system. One of the most common side effects is drowsiness or sleepiness. If you’re taking it to relieve anxiety or muscle spasms during the day, you may find that it makes you feel sluggish and fatigued. Some people may feel depressed, agitated, or apathetic.
Since alcohol is also a central nervous system depressant, the two drugs have some similar effects. Valium may cause some effects that are similar to alcohol intoxication, lowering inhibitions, making you feel relaxed, and causing impairment of your motor skills, cognition, and memory. Because Valium can cause these effects, it’s sometimes used as a recreational drug. In 2016, a report in the journal called Mental Health Clinician revealed that benzodiazepine misuse had reached significant levels. The report estimated that 2.3% to 18% of Americans misuse sedatives like Valium in their lifetimes.
Misusing Valium and other benzodiazepines can increase your risk of becoming chemically dependent on the drug. Many benzodiazepines can cause dependence and substance use disorders after just a few weeks of regular use. High doses increase that risk even more.
Alcohol and Valium are different chemicals, but they work in the brain in similar ways. Both of them are central nervous system depressants. Depressants interact with your brain’s chemical messaging system to slow down activity. Your brain and nervous system communicate in complex ways, but two major functions of the chemicals in your brain are to be excitatory or inhibitory. Excitatory chemicals increase activity in your brain. They can make you feel alert, excited, anxious, or energized. Inhibitory chemicals slow down activity to make you feel relaxed and at ease. Valium and alcohol both have inhibitory effects.
In chemistry, alcohol is a broad term that can refer to many different kinds of chemicals, most of which would kill you if you drank them. The kind of alcohol you can drink is called ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Humans may have adapted to be able to drink alcohol because it’s naturally produced by plants and fruit that we eat through fermentation. When you drink, ethanol is absorbed into your bloodstream. If you drink more than one beverage in an hour, ethanol will get past your liver and make it to your brain.
Once alcohol is in your brain, it affects your nervous system in several ways. However, despite thousands of years of drinking alcohol, researchers don’t know exactly how it works in the brain. The main way it is thought to affect the brain is to interact with a naturally occurring chemical called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is closely tied to relaxation, anxiety management, and sleep, and it works by opening a channel in your nerve cells to let in negative ions. This negative charge shuts down certain activities and has the overall effect of allowing you to rest and digest. Alcohol may have an effect on these channels to enhance the effect of GABA.
Valium, like other benzodiazepines, is thought to work in a similar way. Unlike alcohol, Valium has been found to bind to nerve cells on GABA receptors. Once it’s bound to the receptor, Valium also affects these negative ion channels to achieve some of the same effects as alcohol.
When you take a Valium prescription, you may be warned by your doctor or pharmacist to avoid alcohol consumption. But if they have similar effects, why is it dangerous to mix them? Actually, it’s dangerous to mix Valium and alcohol because they have similar effects. When you take two or more drugs that have similar effects on your brain and body, it can do something called potentiation. Potentiation is when drugs combine to cause more intense effects than they normally would because they are both working on your brain in similar ways.
Since alcohol and Valium both work in similar ways, taking them together is like taking a higher dose of one of them. Drinking alcohol while you’re taking Valium can increase your risk of experiencing a depressant overdose. Even if you’ve only taken relatively small doses of each individual drug, potentiation can cause you to experience overdose symptoms. A depressant overdose can cause nausea, sedation, and vomiting, but it can also cause some potentially life-threatening symptoms. Depressant overdose symptoms may include:
- Heavy sedation
- Loss of consciousness
- Heavy intoxication
- Loss of motor control
- Memory impairment
- Nausea and vomiting
- Changes in vision
- Slowed breathing
- Bluish coloration in lips and fingertips
- Oxygen deprivation
One of the most dangerous symptoms of a depressant overdose is respiratory depression. Respiratory depression is when your breathing is slowed to a dangerous degree. Depressants like Valium and alcohol can slow down your breathing by slowing nervous system activity relating to important automatic functions in your body. Slowed or stopped breathing can happen during heavy sedation or unconsciousness without you realizing it. During a fatal depressant overdose, respiratory depression is often the cause of death.
Another potentially dangerous complication is the aspiration of vomit. Since alcohol and Valium overdose can cause nausea and a loss of consciousness, you may be at risk of vomiting while you’re asleep and aspirating it. This can be similar to drowning. If someone is with you when this happens, they may be able to intervene by helping you to sit up or roll to your side.
Valium and alcohol misuse is likely to cause some acute, short-term effects, but mixing them may also cause some dangerous long-term effects. Misusing both of these drugs can affect multiple areas of your body, leading to long-lasting health problems.
Both drugs can affect your heart rate. Alcohol misuse can contribute to high blood pressure, strokes, and heart disease. Depressants manipulate some parts of the brain that are related to automatic functions like heart rate and blood pressure. Alcohol and benzodiazepine misuse can cause long-term issues with these important functions.
Alcohol misuse is known to be hard on your liver. Long-term alcoholism can lead to liver disease and dysfunction. However, Valium may also damage your liver if it’s used for a long time, especially if it’s misused in high doses. The FDA warns that liver function tests should be used to monitor your liver during the long-term use of Valium. If you use both of these drugs at the same time, it could cause liver disease to develop more quickly.
Long-term alcoholism is also tied to various kinds of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast. Valium isn’t definitively tied to as many different types of cancers, but studies in mice and rats showed an increased incidence of the development of liver tumors. However, the FDA notes that the studies don’t mean Diazepam has a significant risk for causing tumors in people. Still, long-term misuse may have some damaging effects, especially on your liver.
Addiction, in general, is a chronic and progressive condition that can affect multiple areas of your life, including your physical health, mental health, relationships, and finances.
People who mix Valium and alcohol may do it intentionally or accidentally. Alcohol is a common part of life for many people. It may be how they socialize on a weekly basis. If you start taking a new depressant like Valium and don’t pay attention to warnings to avoid drinking, you may mix them accidentally by going about your normal routine. When you take a new medication of any kind, it’s important to ask questions about what you can and can’t take alongside it. Your doctor or pharmacist can answer many of those questions. You can also learn more by reading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations about a prescription. The FDA makes any data about approved prescriptions available online.
Some may mix a prescription benzodiazepine like Valium with alcohol intentionally. Potentiation is a dangerous consequence of mixing these chemicals, but it also causes a more intense euphoria in smaller doses. While it’s likely to make you feel sleepy and sedated, people may try it to achieve a more intense high.
Polydrug use is common, especially among people who use drugs recreationally. Settings in which drugs are being used to achieve an intoxicating high may have more than one substance available. Polydrug use may also be common among people who experience drug overdoses. A study in non-fatal overdoses in California found that heroin, benzodiazepines, and alcohol were commonly mixed in overdose cases. Many of the fatal overdose deaths in the United States involve more than one drug.
Alcohol is potentially dangerous when mixed with a variety of substances. Any drug that is potentially harmful to your liver may be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Even antibiotics can be hard on your liver. Doctors may advise you to limit alcohol intake while you’re on these medications. Check with your doctor before drinking whenever you’re taking a new medication.
Several other drugs can be dangerous for the same reason that Valium is when mixed with alcohol. Other central nervous system depressants can cause the same potentiation with alcohol that Valium can. This includes other benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sleep aids like Ambien and Lunesta. Opioids are separate from central nervous system depressants, and they work in the brain differently, but they can also have a sedating effect on the body. Like alcohol, they can cause respiratory depression, especially when mixed.
Alcohol and Valium can cause some common signs and symptoms if use leads to an overdose. Other depressants may also cause similar symptoms. If you notice the signs of a depressant overdose, it requires immediate medical attention. Here are some common signs to look out for:
- Pale, clammy, or cold skin
- Muscle relaxation causes limp limbs
- Bluish fingernails or lips
- Vomiting or gurgling noises
- Passing out and difficulty maintaining consciousness
- Their breathing is slow or stopped.
- Their heartbeat is very slow, inconsistent, or stopped.
A depressant overdose may be difficult to notice or manage in yourself. The powerful sedating effects will make it difficult to stay awake, move, or even speak. Prevention is the best way to avoid dangerous consequences. Never mix sedatives with alcohol. If you are taking sedatives or opioids and alcohol is involved, never do it alone. If you start to notice that it’s difficult to move, speak, think clearly, or stay awake, try to let someone know that you need help.
Drug overdose is one of the most common causes of death among younger people. Alcohol poisoning has been a threat to recreational substance users, but the opioid epidemic has made overdose even more common. Alcohol, Valium, other depressants, and even opioids can cause some of the same overdose signs and symptoms. Recognizing the signs of overdose may be essential in saving someone’s life. Since depressant drugs can cause you to pass out or experience heavy sedation, you may not be aware that you’re experiencing an overdose when it happens, so the people around you have to act to get your medical attention. But what should you do if you notice the signs of an overdose in someone else?
The first thing you should do is to call for emergency medical services. An overdose can be treated, but if someone stops breathing, they need treatment immediately. Paramedics and first responders can help as soon as they arrive, and they can take them to an emergency room for further treatment. If an opioid or benzodiazepine like Valium is involved, there are medications that can counteract those drugs in the body. If necessary, a person who stops breathing can be given oxygen or intubated until the drug wears off.
After you call 911, there are some things you can do to keep a person safe while you wait. This can include the following:
- Help the person sit up. If they can’t, try to roll them on their side and avoid letting them lay completely face up or face down on the floor. Doing so could cause them to choke if they vomit.
- Keep their airways clear. Remove pillows or blankets from their face and make sure there isn’t anything in their mouth. If they’ve stopped breathing, you may need to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
- Stay with them. You may need to intervene if the person rolls onto their back, vomits, stops breathing, or has a seizure.
- Keep them warm. Depressants can lower a person’s body temperature, causing hyperthermia during an overdose. Blankets or sweaters can help.
- Make a note of the drugs the person took. Medical professionals can treat them better, faster if they know what drugs are causing the overdose.
- Don’t shock them. If a person passes out, don’t shock them awake with cold water, a slap to the face, or other jarring actions. This could send them into shock, which worsens the situation.
If an opioid may have been involved, naloxone can be used to reverse the overdose. Naloxone is carried by paramedics, and it’s sold over the counter in some places.
Valium and alcohol are both central nervous system depressants, which means they’re in a drug category known for potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms occur after you develop a chemical dependence on a drug. Dependence occurs because your brain adapts to the presence of these chemicals.
It usually doesn’t happen after one night of drinking or a single Valium pill, but it can happen after a few weeks of consistent or excessive use. Both of these substances slow down the activity in your nervous system, and your brain may adapt by adjusting your brain chemistry to counteract these effects. This can make you feel like you’re becoming tolerant to the alcohol or Valium, which means that it doesn’t seem to be as effective as it was when you first started taking it.
Another sign that you might be chemically dependent on these drugs is the feeling of restlessness, anxiety, or irritability when you miss a dose or try to cut back. These may be early withdrawal symptoms appearing as your body starts to miss the drug. When you stop taking a depressant after becoming dependent, your brain chemistry will become unbalanced. Since you will suddenly miss a source of sedation and inhibitory chemicals, you may feel overstimulated and agitated. Some of the symptoms of depressant withdrawal include:
- Heart palpitations
Seizures are among the most dangerous consequences of depressant withdrawal. Seizures can come on suddenly, causing you to pass out and experience convulsions. Seizures can be serious and potentially when they cause injuries. Alcohol withdrawal is also associated with a phenomenon called delirium tremens (DTs). DTs is a set of symptoms that include sudden and extreme confusion, panic, agitation, irregular heartbeat, sweating, chest pains, coma, heart attack, and stroke. While DTs is associated with alcohol withdrawal, it may also happen with other depressants like benzodiazepines and barbiturates.
Depressant withdrawal may be worse if you’ve been through it before because of something called kindling. When you go through withdrawal from something like alcohol or Valium, it can cause long-lasting changes in the brain. Subsequent withdrawal symptoms may be even worse.
Both Valium and alcohol can cause potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms on their own. If you develop a dependence on both alcohol and Valium, it could cause even worse withdrawal symptoms to occur.
Substance use disorders that are related to Valium or alcohol can increase your risk of experiencing an overdose and other dangerous consequences of drug misuse. Substance use disorders can involve chemical dependence and addiction. Dependence is characterized by uncomfortable and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit. Addiction is identified by compulsive drug use despite consequences to your health, relationships, and other aspects of life. Substance use disorders can be difficult or dangerous to deal with on your own.
Both Valium and alcohol can cause potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. To avoid complications like seizures, you should speak to a doctor before quitting abruptly or cutting back after a long period of dependence. Substance use disorders that involve depressants are often treated with medical detox, which involves 24-hour care from medical professionals. Through detox, you may receive medications to help you taper off alcohol or Valium. Benzodiazepines, including Valium, are sometimes used to help people taper off depressants. If you only have a mild chemical dependence, you may be able to taper at home with the help of a doctor.
Substance use disorders that involve addiction may need more robust treatment for the sobriety you achieve to be long-lasting. Addiction is a disease that affects the part of your brain that’s designed to encourage you to repeat tasks called the reward center. Addiction treatment is a personalized process that’s designed to address addiction and its underlying contributing factors like mental health problems. Addiction treatment involves multiple levels of care, with medical detox being the most intensive. You may also go through inpatient/ residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient treatment.
Through these levels of care, you may go through many different therapy options that address your specific needs. Behavioral therapies are common, especially cognitive behavioral therapy. You may also go through individual, group, and family therapy sessions.