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The Truth About Medications in Pop Culture

person holding a glass of water and a pill

Taking a look at Xanax®, Zoloft®, Prozac and Valium®

By Isabelle Sviatioslavsky, pharmacy intern at Network Health
Originally published on 5/20/2021 at 11:00 a.m.

While watching television or listening to music you may notice common medication names referenced in lyrics or in the dialogue between characters. In the media, certain medication names get thrown around without clear context behind them.

It is important to remember these medications are more than just pop culture references – they play larger roles in the treatment of different conditions, including anxiety and depression.

Today, we’re going to look at some of these commonly mentioned medications, clear up any myths about them and dive into their potential side effects and the valuable role they play in medical treatment.

Depression and anxiety

Because many of these medications are made for depression and anxiety, it’s important to understand what these conditions entail and how medication can help.

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions. Experts have estimated that one out of every three people in the United States will be affected by an anxiety disorder during their life, while one out of every five will experience some form of depression.

Two medication classes for depression and anxiety that often show up in pop culture are benzodiazepines and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). You may recognize some medications in these classes by their brand names – Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac and Valium.

Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium)

Sometimes referred to as “benzos”, these medications play an important role in the treatment of anxiety. Xanax, generically available as alprazolam, and Valium, generically available as diazepam, are used to help quickly calm anxiety and used for a short duration of time.

Less frequently, benzodiazepines are used long-term to control severe anxiety symptoms. While these medications can be medically necessary, they do have risks. Like all medications we’re going to be talking about today, never use them unless they are prescribed to you.

Prescriptions are crucial for benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines have the potential to cause addiction and severe side effects if taken inappropriately. Those who are prescribed benzodiazepines are closely monitored by their personal doctor for things like liver function, age and risk of falling.

The dose is carefully tailored to avoid harm. The lowest dose possible is generally recommended. Safety measures like this help prevent serious side effects from occurring. Some of these side effects include excessive drowsiness, confusion and even difficulty breathing. Someone who is not prescribed a benzodiazepine but takes one from a family member or friend is at greater risk for these side effects because they are not being monitored by their doctor, the dosing is not right and their drug interactions have not been considered.

Additionally, when these medications are stopped, the dose is decreased slowly over time, before stopping the medication completely to avoid withdrawal symptoms like sweating, irritability, sleep disturbances and worsening of anxiety.

Is Xanax addictive? Benzodiazepines and dependence

Benzodiazepines do have the potential to cause addiction. When taken at larger doses for a longer period of time, benzodiazepine dependence can occur. This means that an individual taking the medication has developed a tolerance to it and experiences withdrawal symptoms when they are not taking it.

People who have dependence begin taking their benzodiazepines to avoid the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms rather than to treat a health condition such as anxiety.

While these medications can have some negative side effects, it is important to remember they also can have a large positive effect on those who are prescribed them for anxiety. Although you may hear the word “Xanax” thrown around in some of your favorite music, benzodiazepines are more than references. They are important medications used to treat the most common mental health conditions.

If you take one of these medications and have questions or concerns, make sure you reach out to your personal doctor for more information on the role these medications play in your treatment plan. If you’re a Network Health member, you can also contact us and speak with our pharmacy team directly.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (Zoloft, Prozac)

SSRIs are one of the most popular anti-depressant medication classes. SSRIs are used for the treatment of multiple conditions, including both anxiety and depression. Zoloft, generically available as sertraline and Prozac, generically available as fluoxetine, play an important role in helping control the symptoms of these conditions and helping those who take them to live their fullest life.

Unlike benzodiazepine, SSRIs need to be taken every day for the full benefit. They can take four to six weeks to start working when therapy is initiated. Because these medications only work if used consistently, taking these medications sporadically from a family member or friend will not give you the desired benefit and may cause harm because things like organ function and drug interactions are not being monitored by a doctor.

Side effects of Zoloft and Prozac

Just like every medication, there are side effects that can be seen with SSRIs. Some of these side effects include nausea, headache and insomnia.

In very rare cases SSRIs can interact with other medications and cause a severe reaction called serotonin syndrome. Some signs of this syndrome include muscle rigidity, fever, sweating, confusion and agitation. Those who experience this should be given prompt medical attention. While this is a potentially rare but serious side effect, many people use SSRIs without ever experiencing serotonin syndrome.

When you start taking an SSRI, your personal doctor and pharmacist will check your medication list for any drug interactions to ensure you are not at risk for this reaction. This is another reason why it is important to only use medications that are prescribed to you, so your doctor can monitor for these potential drug interactions. If you are unsure if any of your medications put you at risk for this syndrome, it is always a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist to learn more about your medications and their side effects.

Drug awareness begins with learning

Medication in pop culture can have pros and cons. On one hand, the use of pharmaceutical language in music lyrics and television has arisen from more honest conversations about mental health and drug therapy treatment for common mental health disorders.

On the other hand, these references aren’t always made appropriately or show that the artist understands the responsible nature of these medications.

At the end of the day, learning how these medications work, what they treat and some of the potential side effects allows you to separate fact from fiction.

With depression and anxiety being prevalent mental health conditions, the use of benzodiazepines and SSRIs is very common. Their commonality may contribute to their reference in the media we consume.

When you hear these references, know these are real medications with valuable benefits when prescribed by a doctor. If they are used outside those guidelines, they can cause harm or mistreatment of mental health conditions.

For more information on medications like benzodiazepines and SSRIs, contact the Network Health pharmacy team today.

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