Anti-anxiety pills and antibacterial soaps get scrutiny for over-use

Moderation matters. And when the health care system goes all-in on fad remedies, the problems, some deadly, soon start to crop up. This week’s illustrations of the dangers of over-use focus on increasingly prescribed anti-anxiety medications and now ubiquitous antibacterial soaps.

Be wary with Xanax, Valium, Klonopin

New research provides a chilling warning: Benzodiazepine-family drugs account for roughly a third of all overdoses of prescription-related medications. In some segments of society and in certain regions, these drugs have become like candy for the stressed. The drugs, which act as muscle relaxants—including Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin─are too commonly prescribed, taken, and abused, researchers warn.

They note that public attention, rightly so, has focused on the epidemic abuse of highly addictive prescription, opioid pain-relief drugs. But the benzodiazepine drugs also get mixed into toxic, lethal combinations with alcohol and the pain-killers; officials tallied almost 23,000 deaths in the United States from benzodiazepine drug overdoses.

“Most benzodiazepines are prescribed for anxiety and mood disorders, so the increase in benzodiazepine prescribing likely reflects either greater anxiety or greater likelihood that prescribers turn to medication to treat mental health problems,” a senior author of the drug study said in an interview.

Researchers found that the number of adults buying these drugs increased by 67 percent over the 18-year period, going from 8.1 million prescriptions in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. The overdose death rate during the same time period increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013, more than a four-fold increase.  The overdose deaths have leveled off since 2010, but the rates keep going up for adults 65 and older, and people of color (African Americans and Latinos).

Physicians, as they increasingly are learning to do with opioid pain killers, need to use great caution in prescribing bendzodiazepines, and then they should closely monitor patients’ use, also warning them about dangerous mixes (with alcohol or other meds), the researchers said. Patients also may wish to consider non-drug therapies for anxiety.

The nation’s struggles with prescription medication abuse, particularly with pharmaceuticals like the benzodiazepines to treat mental conditions, comes at a challenging time: Experts say neuroscience may be on the brink of new, improved therapies for mental disorders; these will include drug-based regimens targeted at patients’ brain biology.

Antibacterial soaps under scrutiny

Meantime, concern continues to grow over Americans’ excessive use of antibacterial soaps, body washes, and shower gels to fight germs.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing and plans to announce in September its views and possible regulation on companies that produce common products that claim to do a better job than plain old soap and water in battling a bevy of bugs. These antibacterials are a growing segment of a $5.5 billion soap, bath, and shower product sector.

The FDA, the paper reports, is undertaking a “sweeping review of virtually all antiseptic products used in the war against germs that are rinsed off or left on, including those used in hospitals to fight the rise in virulent bacteria and protect patients from infection. [Also under review are] hand sanitizers, including those based on alcohol, and [the agency’s] weighing separate rules for food-processing workers.”

Although many of the key germ-fighting components of antibacterial soaps have been around for awhile:

[T]he most commonly used chemical, triclosan, was always under separate scrutiny … while the FDA never took formal action, since then studies have suggested it can interfere with hormones and cause changes in thyroid, reproductive-growth and developmental systems. And some research indicates that the booming use of antibacterials is contributing to the creation of superbugs that are resistant to the antibiotics long used to fight them.

The effectiveness of antibacterials also long has been under question. It’s unclear if any of them exceed the bug battling power of plain soap and water. Some big players already have taken steps: Kaiser Permanente has banned triclosan and identified 13 antimicrobial chemicals it wants banned from its hospitals because they don’t have health benefits and may be toxic, a spokeswoman said.

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