Mind and Body

Anti-anxiety meds increase risk of pneumonia

Ativan, Valium and other benzodiazepines have been shown to increase the risk of getting pneumonia-- and dying from it – according to a study published in the journal Thorax.

The study found those people who took benzodiazepines regularly had a 50 percent increased risk of contracting pneumonia.

Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, epilepsy and muscle spasms.

They are also frequently used as a sedative in critically ill patients.

The authors estimate that about 2 percent of Americans have taken benzodiazepines for 12 months or more. Of the elderly, about one in 10 take the drugs.

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.  

There is some evidence that benzodiazepines suppress immune function by targeting so-called GABA-A receptors on nerves and immune cells.

The authors, from the UK, analyzed the health records of about 5,000 British patients with a reported diagnosis of pneumonia that occurred between 2001 and 2002. 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. But 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.

Specifically, prescriptions for diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan) and temazepam (Restoril) were all associated with an increased risk of contracting pneumonia.

The study also found that the risk of dying within 30 days of being diagnosed with pneumonia was 22 percent higher among those taking benzos.  

“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.

Because benzodiaspines are so widely used, Sanders said more research is urgently needed.