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Minerva Medica 2014 December;105(6 Suppl 3):1-7


language: English

Are benzodiazepines and opioids really safe in patients with severe COPD?

Battaglia S. 1, Bezzi M. 2, Sferrazza Papa G. F. 3

1 Dipartimento Biomedico di Medicina Interna e Specialistica (Di.Bi.M.I.S.), Sezione di Malattie Cardio-Respiratorie ed Endocrino-Metaboliche, University of Palermo, Palermo, Italy; 2 Centro di Endoscopia Respiratoria e Laserterapia, A.O. Spedali Civili di Brescia, Italy; 3 Unità Operativa Complessa di Pneumologia, A.O. San Paolo, Dipartimento di Scienze della Salute, Università degli Studi di Milano, Milan, Italy


Breathlessness is a key symptom in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with prognostic implications on health status and survival. Since most conditions underlying chronic refractory breathlessness in COPD are not modifiable, the use of opioids and benzodiazepines has been proposed to relieve it. However, respiratory depression is a known adverse event of these drugs, and concerns have been raised on their use in patients with chronic respiratory failure. Despite safety-related concerns, benzodiazepines are frequently prescribed for a variety of reasons, including treatment of insomnia, depression and anxiety, as well as to relieve refractory dyspnea in patients with COPD. The key role of opioids in the end-of-life and in the management of dyspnea that is unresponsive to best-possible disease management is recognized. Moreover, the use of low dose opioids to treat dyspnea, discomfort or refusal for patient undergoing non-invasive ventilation is still debated. In the current review, we aim at discussing and analyzing recently published findings on the use of benzodiazepines and opioids in patients with COPD and at reviewing the literature on this topic. Recent observations favor the use of lower doses of opioids (≤30 mg oral morphine equivalents/day) for reduction of symptoms in those patients with severe COPD receiving long-term oxygen therapy. Low dose opioids are not associated with an increased risk of hospital admission or death in cohorts of COPD patients on long term oxygen therapy. On the contrary, benzodiazepines and opioids at higher doses might increase mortality.

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