Combining certain medications can be risky

Helping doctors and older adults weigh the benefits and risks of prescription medications is a goal of many studies done by Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute and other organizations nationwide. When recent studies showed that using opioids and benzodiazepine together can cause serious health issues for older adults, we joined a national effort to spread the word about the risks.

Opioids are prescription pain medicines, and benzodiazepines are medicines often prescribed to treat anxiety or sleep problems.

Examples of opioids Examples of benzodiazepines
Codeine Alprazolam
Hydrocodone Diazepam
Oxycodone Clonazepam
Fentanyl Lorazepam

What can happen if I take these medicines together?

The risk of overdose is 4 times higher if you’re taking opioids and benzodiazepines together. Taking these drugs at different times can also be risky, because they can stay in your system up to several days. Even if you’ve been taking them together for years, you may still be at risk. The body’s ability to metabolize and get rid of medicines slows down with age, so medicines stay in your body longer.

What should I do now?

If you’ve been taking these medicines for a long time, don’t suddenly stop. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of each medicine and ask about safer alternatives. You can also ask your provider about naloxone, a lifesaving medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose within 2 minutes.

What other studies might be important to me?

Studies completed by our research institute in the last few years include one that discovered a link between a class of drugs called anticholinergics and a slightly higher chance of developing dementia. Another study linked the drugs to a higher risk of developing pneumonia. Anticholinergics are ingredients in some commonly used antidepressants, bladder and pain medications, and even certain types of non-prescription antihistamines and sleep aids. Anticholinergics can be found in well-known products that include Benadryl, Chlor-Trimeton, Nyquil, Advil PM, and Tylenol PM.

For more information about our research institute’s studies, visit

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