Anxiety and sleep problems are two of the most common health problems that Americans face. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly a third of adults in the U.S don’t get the sleep they need. Anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adult Americans. Xanax and Valium are both similar drugs that are used to treat anxiety disorders and sleep problems. They are incredibly useful medications, and they’ve been among the most frequently used medications in the world since they were first introduced.
They belong to the same drug class, but is there a significant difference between the two substances? When you need a prescription drug, it’s important to know what you’re taking and what other options are available. Your doctor can help you find the right medication for your needs, but it’s important for you to know your options and the differences between them.
Learn more about Xanax and Valium and how they compare.
What Is Xanax?
Xanax is the brand name for a drug called alprazolam. It’s one of the most popular products from a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Xanax is used to treat anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety and panic disorders. It may also be used in combination with other drugs to treat nausea due to chemotherapy. In the United States, Xanax is only available by prescription.
Legally, it’s considered a Schedule IV drug, which means that it’s considered to have a low potential for abuse compared to Schedule III drugs like barbiturates and ketamine. However, using the drug for too long or misusing it as a recreational drug can lead to chemical dependence and addiction.
Alprazolam was first patented in 1971, and it was first approved for use in the United States in 1981. Benzodiazepines are extremely popular as a drug upon their release. In the 1970s, they became the most widely used prescription drug in the world. In 2018, alprazolam alone was one of the most prescribed drugs, more than 20 million times, making it the 37th most prescribed drug in the world.
What Is Valium?
Valium is the brand name for a drug called diazepam. Like Valium, it’s a central nervous system depressant and a benzodiazepine. It’s a common treatment for anxiety disorders, though it’s not as commonly used as Xanax.
Valium is often used to treat less severe problems that call for CNS depressants like restless leg syndrome, trouble sleeping, and mild anxiety disorders. However, it can also be used to treat muscle spasms and seizures. Valium can be useful in treating alcohol and benzodiazepine use disorders. The drug is used to help people who are chemically dependent on other depressants taper off the depressant safely while avoiding life-threatening side effects.
Like Xanax, it’s possible to develop a chemical dependence on Valium, and quitting abruptly can be dangerous.
Valium was first patented in 1959, and it was first launched for medical use in 1963, making it one of the first drugs of its class. It was the highest-selling prescription in the United States between 1968 and 1982. Valium was prescribed more than 6 million times in 2018. Though it’s much less common than Xanax, it’s still a popular drug that’s used all around the world.
How are They Similar?
Since both drugs are in the same class of drugs, they probably share more similarities than differences. Both drugs work in a similar way in the brain as central nervous system depressants. Like other depressants, they work by influencing a natural chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an important neurotransmitter that helps to facilitate rest and relaxation when it binds to its receptors. Benzodiazepines can also bind to GABA receptors on different binding sites. They work to increase the efficiency of GABA, creating feelings of sedation, relaxation, and anxiolysis.
Both drugs work quickly, and they can be useful in situations where quick relief is needed. They last in the body for a similar amount of time, and their effects are no longer noticeable after about 24 hours.
Because they work in similar ways, they’re used to treat some of the same problems. In fact, they may be used interchangeably in some cases. They’re most popular as a medication for anxiety disorders and panic attacks.
Both drugs can be misused as a recreational drug, and illicit use of these medications is not uncommon. Though they are considered to have a relatively low abuse potential based on their scheduling, 5.4 million people reported misusing prescription benzodiazepines within the past year of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Around 399,000 of those cases were minors between the ages of 12 and 17 years old. Misuse can result in chemical dependence and addiction.
Like alcohol, quitting Xanax or Valium abruptly after a period of dependency can be life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms include tremors, restlessness, shaking, and seizures. Tapering off the drug or otherwise being treated medically through withdrawal is the safest way to stop benzodiazepine dependence.
Xanax and Valium can both be dangerous when they’re used alongside other depressants like alcohol and pain-relievers like opioids. When combined, their nervous system depressing effects can compound to cause extreme sedation, loss of consciousness, coma, and respiratory depression. In many fatal cases, slowed or stopped breathing leads to fatal oxygen deprivation. In 2018, there were 10,724 overdose deaths tied to benzodiazepines. Many of these cases involve polydrug use with alcohol or opioids.
How are They Different?
Though the drugs have many similarities, there are a few differences between Xanax and Valium that may be significant. When you’re seeking treatment for a disorder that these drugs are approved for, it’s important to note these differences when speaking to your doctor. Ultimately, every person is different, and your treatment plan should be unique. Medical and clinical professionals can help you determine the right medication for your needs.
Both drugs begin working within a few hours, but Xanax may take a bit longer to become effective. Xanax has a shorter half-life than Valium, which means that Valium lasts longer in your system and has more prolonged effects.
Though Xanax is prescribed more often than Valium, Xanax may be more likely to lead to chemical dependence and addiction. For that reason, Valium may be used as the first line of defense when treating anxiety. If it’s not effective, Xanax is used.
Xanax is more commonly used to treat more severe problems and may be more effective in treating serious issues. For instance, Xanax is approved for the treatment of panic disorders, and Valium is not. On the other hand, Valium’s more mild nature allows it to be used in the treatment of children, but Xanax’s safety in children has not been definitively determined.