What is Nitrazepam?

K. K. Lowen

Nitrazepam is a hypnotic drug used to treat insomnia and some types of seizures. Belonging to the benzodiazepine class of drugs, the medication is a central nervous system depressant. This drug has been successful in treating both insomnia and epilepsy, but normally on a short term basis due to its propensity to lose effectiveness, become addictive, and cause serious side effects. Patients who are pregnant, elderly, or have liver problems or cancer should not use this drug.

Nitrazepam has been used to treat insomnia.
Nitrazepam has been used to treat insomnia.

When prescribing this medication, doctors must be caution of the rapidity with which this drug loses its effectiveness. Insomnia patients benefit from reduced anxiety, relaxed muscles, and both the sedative and amnestic properties, but patients may build a tolerance to the medication’s sleep inducing effects in as little as seven days. Epilepsy patients experience a decrease in seizures but only when patients do not respond to other medications because its anticonvulsant properties rapidly lose their effectiveness.

Confusion is one possible side effect of nitrazepam.
Confusion is one possible side effect of nitrazepam.

Patients should not take the drug for extended periods because, in addition to diminished effectiveness, nitrazepam dependency may develop. Withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and concentration problems. Other health issues also could develop with long-term use, such as immunological problems and an increased risk of certain types of cancer.

In addition to the loss of effectiveness and possible addiction, doctors may avoid prescribing the medication to epileptic patients because of the unwanted side effects. Many of nitrazepam’s side effects relate to its sedative properties including fatigue, slurred speech, confusion, clumsiness, drowsiness, and decreased alertness and physical performance. Its amnestic and anxiety-reducing properties may cause memory impairment and numb the patient’s emotions. Other side effects include double vision, rage, dizziness, and muscle weakness.

Pregnant women should not take the medication because it rapidly crosses the placenta and intoxicates the baby. Addiction and neonatal withdrawal syndrome may occur. Additionally, benzodiazepine drugs are long-acting and tend to accumulate in the body’s organs, and the accumulation is higher in babies than in children or adults. Breastfeeding mothers are also inappropriate candidates for nitrazepam treatment, as researchers have found high levels of the drug in breast milk.

Elderly patients should be particularly cautious when using nitrazepam because the clumsiness and impaired balance associated with the drug can increase the risk of falling and hip fractures. The medication also may cause confusion and disorientation, even in low doses. Tests have also shown that elderly patients are more prone to the drug’s negative side effects.

Other inappropriate candidates for nitrazepam treatment include those with liver problems and cancer patients. The medication is more toxic to the liver than many other benzodiazepine drugs, which may cause issues such as the reduction of normal cell function in patients with liver disease. Not only does the drug place all patients at a higher risk of developing various types of cancer, it increases the mortality rate for those who already have cancer. Sudden death may occur in children as well.

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