Valium Facts and FAQs
For many years, from its introduction in 1963 until 1981, Valium had the distinction of being the single most widely prescribed drug in the U.S. Immortalized by the Rolling Stones in their 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper,” Valium got a rep for enabling housewives to cope with the mundane tasks of everyday life. While Valium was overprescribed in the 1960s to 1970s, most people who took it had debilitating levels of distress associated with diagnosable mental illness. The following Valium FAQs separate fact from fiction and provide insights on what was once the most popular drug in America.1
Is It Possible to Overdose on Valium?
In 1987, Robert C. McFarlane, the former White House national security adviser, was hospitalized for taking an overdose of Valium (30 to 40 pills) in an attempted suicide. While it is possible to overdose on Valium, it is extremely difficult to do so. Some people have taken extremely large quantities of diazepam without any major side effects other than sleeping for 48 hours. Experts claim individuals have survived many times the amount McFarlane took. The risk of overdose is substantially greater when large quantities are taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs.2
A look at overdose deaths that occurred in Isabella County, Michigan, in 2016 provides insights on how Valium combined with other drugs can result in accidental but fatal overdoses. These overdoses likely mirror polydrug abuse and trends across the country.3
- A 31-year-old man took Valium, alcohol, fentanyl, hydrocodone and morphine.
- A 30-year-old man took cocaine, Valium, fentanyl, heroin, pseudoephedrine, sertraline and tramadol.
- A 25-year-old woman took oxycodone, cyclobenzaprine and Valium.
What Are the Primary Differences Between Valium and Xanax?
Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam) are both benzodiazepines that enhance the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Valium has a far longer half-life than Xanax, meaning the active ingredient stays in the body for 36 to 200 hours versus 6.3 to 26.9 hours for Xanax. While both are used to treat anxiety disorders, alprazolam is also approved to treat panic disorder and diazepam is used for muscle spasms and to help mitigate withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol and even drugs like Xanax.
The biggest difference is Xanax has a higher risk of addiction than Valium. Xanax increased production rates by 148% from 2004 to 2009, and the annual rate of prescriptions has increased by 9% since 2008. These facts likely explain why the incidence of alprazolam abuse is far greater than that of diazepam.4,5
Can Valium Cause Liver Damage?
Like other benzodiazepines, diazepam is rarely associated with serum ALT elevations during therapy. Furthermore, clinically apparent liver injury from diazepam is exceedingly rare. There have been no reported cases of acute liver failure or chronic liver injury due to diazepam. With that said, people with advanced liver disease should not take Valium and many other drugs because a compromised liver likely cannot metabolize the medication effectively and this could result in toxic drug levels and further damage to the liver.6,7
Is It Safe to Give Older Adults Valium for Surgery?
Valium is a long-acting drug that is detectable in the blood for up to three days. It is sometimes used during surgery to induce amnesia or given to individuals to take at home the morning of surgery to make them more relaxed. There are several concerns regarding the use of Valium in older adults. The sedative effect of Valium may last longer in older people, increasing the risk of falls and accidents, especially when people use assistive devices like canes and walkers. If someone is given Valium either pre-surgery or during the procedure, they need to be reminded not to drive, make important decisions or sign legal documents for up to 24 hours after taking the drug. While the rate of alcohol use in older adults is far below that of 20-year-olds, many older people drink and these rates are likely underreported. Mixing alcohol with Valium can be deadly, even in small amounts. Depression is far more common in older adults and Valium can increase depressive symptoms. Its sedative properties may provide an escape from problems for depressed older adults and lead to dependence. Many experts recommend prescribing alternative drugs to older adults due to these risks.8
- Judith Warner. Valium Invalidation: What if Mother (and Father) Really Did Need A Little Help? Time. October 5, 2012. http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/05/valium-invalidation-what-if-mother-and-father-really-did-need-a-little-help/ Accessed February 23, 2017.
- Harold M. Schmeck Jr. Valium, Often a Suicide Step, Seldom Works. New York Times. February 11, 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/02/11/us/valium-often-a-suicide-step-seldom-works.html Accessed February 23, 2017.
- Overdose deaths appear to remain steady or slightly down in Isabella County. The Morning Sun website. http://www.themorningsun.com/article/MS/20170205/NEWS/170209763 Published February 5, 2017. Accessed February 23, 2017.
- Alprazolam vs. Diazepam. Diffen website. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Alprazolam_vs_Diazepam Accessed February 23, 2017.
- 20 Profound Xanax Addiction Statistics. Health Research Funding website. http://healthresearchfunding.org/20-profound-xanax-addiction-statistics/ Published February 1, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2017.
- DIAZEPAM (Oral). National Institute of Health LiverTox website. https://livertox.nih.gov/DiazepamOral.htm Updated April 15, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2016.
- How Does Valium Affect Liver Enzymes? Livestrong website. http://www.livestrong.com/article/466895-how-does-valium-affect-liver-enzymes/ Updated October 8, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2017.
- 3 Issues to Watch When Using Valium as a Preoperative Drug in an ASC. Becker’s ASC website. http://www.beckersasc.com/asc-quality-infection-control/3-issues-to-watch-when-using-valium-as-a-preoperative-drug-in-an-asc.html Published August 15, 2012. Accessed February 23, 2017.