Benzodiazepines, a commonly prescribed class of drugs used for treating insomnia, anxiety, and other conditions, may also increase a person’s risk of contracting and dying from pneumonia. Patients who were taking these drugs or had taken them in the past were 54% more likely to contract pneumonia, 22% more likely to die within 30 days of being diagnosed with pneumonia, and 32% more likely to die within 3 years of diagnosis compared with individuals not taking the medications. The findings, by researchers from England, appear today in the journal Thorax.
Specifically, the researchers found that Valium, Ativan, and Restoril, but not Librium, were associated with increased incidence of pneumonia. All 4 medications, individually, were associated with increased long-term risk of death.
Benzodiazepines act by depressing the central nervous system. In addition to their use in treating anxiety and insomnia, they also are used as anticonvulsant medications and as muscle relaxants. It is estimated that about 2% of the populations in the United States and United Kingdom, and up to 10% of the elderly populations in those countries, have taken benzodiazepines for 12 months or more.
The researchers said that although benzodiazepines are widely prescribed, little is known about their effects on the immune system. They decided to study the association between benzodiazepine use and pneumonia, noting that prior research showed the medications’ use to be associated with increased numbers of infections and death from sepsis in critically ill patients. Their findings are based on 4964 cases of community-acquired pneumonia recorded in 2001-2002 in a United Kingdom primary care patient database called The Health Improvement Network. Each case was matched with 6 patients (29 697 control patients) drawn from the same practice and matched for age and sex.
The researchers said their findings do not definitively prove that benzodiazepines cause pneumonia and called for further, more rigorous study to explore the link.