Flumazenil for BZD overdose: getting away with it

Standard teaching in benzodiazepine (BZD) overdose is that the reversal agent flumazenil is best avoided because of the risk of seizures, particular in those patients who are BZD dependent and those who may have co-ingested proconvulsant substances such as tricyclic antidepressants.

Data from the UK’s National Poisons Information Service indicate that these principles are often flouted in the UK, and they usually get away with it, even in patients who had had seizures prior to flumazenil therapy. This will not change my practice though.


Objective Benzodiazepine (BZD) overdose (OD) continues to cause significant morbidity and mortality in the UK. Flumazenil is an effective antidote but there is a risk of seizures, particularly in those who have co-ingested tricyclic antidepressants. A study was undertaken to examine the frequency of use, safety and efficacy of flumazenil in the management of BZD OD in the UK.

Methods A 2-year retrospective cohort study was performed of all enquiries to the UK National Poisons Information Service involving BZD OD.

Results Flumazenil was administered to 80 patients in 4504 BZD-related enquiries, 68 of whom did not have ventilatory failure or had recognised contraindications to flumazenil. Factors associated with flumazenil use were increased age, severe poisoning and ventilatory failure. Co-ingestion of tricyclic antidepressants and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease did not influence flumazenil administration. Seizure frequency in patients not treated with flumazenil was 0.3%. The frequency of prior seizure in flumazenil-treated patients was 30 times higher (8.8%). Seven patients who had seizures prior to flumazenil therapy had no recurrence of their seizures. Ventilation or consciousness improved in 70% of flumazenil-treated patients. Flumazenil administration was followed by one instance each of agitation and brief seizure.

Conclusions Flumazenil is used infrequently in the management of BZD OD in the UK. It was effective and associated with a low incidence of seizure. These results compare favourably with the results of published randomised controlled trials and cohort studies, although previous studies have not reported the use of flumazenil in such a high-risk population. This study should inform the continuing review of national guidance on flumazenil therapy.

Flumazenil use in benzodiazepine overdose in the UK: a retrospective survey of NPIS data
Emerg Med J. 2012 Jul;29(7):565-9