Australian doctors are prescribing addictive anxiety and insomnia drugs for significantly longer periods than recommended, a university study has found.
The study conducted by the University of Adelaide looked at the medical records of more than 1.4 million patients who visited GPs between 2011 and 2018.
The researchers found that new users of benzodiazepines and Z-drugs were on the medications for 11 months on average, much longer than the recommended four weeks.
Benzodiazepines are drugs prescribed mainly to manage anxiety and insomnia, such as Valium and Xanax, while Z-drugs (zolpidem and zopiclone) are medications used for managing insomnia.
Associate Professor David Gonzalez, from the university's Discipline of General Practice unit, said Benzodiazepines and Z-drugs were widely considered effective, but long-term use could cause harm.
"Short-term use of these medications is usually safe and successful, however, long-term use can lead to dependence and adverse effects," he said.
"They are very addictive medications, stopping them suddenly can cause anxiety, nausea, aches, hand tremors and other withdrawal symptoms."
In Australia, benzodiazepines and Z-drugs are available only with a prescription and account for about four to five per cent of all medications prescribed by GPs, the university said.
In 2019/20, about 5.5 million benzodiazepine prescriptions were dispensed in Australia to 1.5 million people.
The university study also found that older people were six times more likely to be prescribed the drugs for long-term use than younger patients.
Women and people living in disadvantaged areas were similarly more likely to be long-term users.
"The higher rates of long-term prescription of benzos and Z-drugs in those groups are concerning and highlight the need for interventions that reduce their potential harms in vulnerable people," Professor Gonzalez said.
He called for non-pharmacological approaches to help people avoid the drugs in the first place as well as access to programs to help stop long-term use.