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Study: 25% of Idaho prescription opioid users also on benzos

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Prescription Pills and Bottle

A quarter of people with long-term opioid prescriptions in Idaho are getting a potentially risky combination of opioids and benzodiazepines or depressants, according to a recent study from Idaho State University.

Researchers from ISU's College of Pharmacy went through all the prescriptions that were reported to the Idaho Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in 2017. They found about 201,000 people with short-term opioid prescriptions, meaning they had been taking opioids for less than 90 days, and another 101,000 who had long-term prescriptions. Out of the ones who had been taking opioids for longer than 90 days, 25,000 were also prescribed benzodiazepines or another depressant.

Opioids, which includes common painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, are generally prescribed for chronic pain, while benzodiazepines, which includes drugs such as Xanax and Klonopin, are often prescribed as sleeping aids, anxiety or to prevent seizures. The problem with combining them is that, since both are depressants, it raises the risk of overdose and death, said James Berain, a student pharmacist who was one of the researchers. There are very few instances, such as end-of-life care, Berain said, where combining them would be appropriate.

What surprised the researchers, Berain said, was that 56 percent of people who were prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines got them from the same doctor. Berain said they expected to see more cases where people were getting them from different doctors.

"It's a known risk," Berain said. "However, prescribers are still placing their patients on this combination."

Berain said the study shows the need for more education of both doctors and patients about the dangers.

"Ideally, we want to avoid those dangerous combinations," he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.