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Prescription drugs continue to claim lives: What patients should know

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Opioid drug use linked to increasing death rates in JAMA study.

Deaths from dangerous prescription drugs have continued to rise for the eleventh consecutive year, according to a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Information obtained from the Centers for Disease Control show opioid painkillers, combined with benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax accounted for 30.1 percent of fatalities.

The authors say the finding is important for understanding the "...role opioid analgesics play in pharmaceutical overdose deaths, either alone or in combination with other drugs" that can lead to death.

Prescriptions for anxiety and other mental health disorders are commonly prescribed for people with chronic pain who are likely to be taking opiates such as hydrocodone, oxycodone or OxyContin. The biggest reason for overdoses was from opioids, the researchers found.

** Why drug prescriptions in U.S. often dangerous and inappropriate

Combining medications makes the possibility of overdose even riskier. Until now researchers weren't certain what other types of drugs contributed or how often they were prescribed.

Leonard Paulozzi, MD, who works at the CDC in Atlanta and his team analyzed data from the NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) over an 11-year period ending in 2010.

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They found 38,329 deaths in the U.S. caused by drug overdoses. In 58 percent of fatalities from prescriptions, other drugs were also involved.

A summary of the findings included 77.2% of deaths linked to opioid prescriptions 65.'5% of patients had anti-seizure and anti-Parkinson's drugs in their system; in addition to opiates; 58% had taken painkillers in with antipsychotic and neuroleptic drugs; 57.6% were found with antidepressants and the analgesics; 56.5% were taking anti-psychotics or drugs to reduce fever or arthritic conditions; 54.2% of other psychotropic drugs tested positive for opioids.

The authors say the finding also highlights the risk of people taking drugs for mental health issues who are also likely to use opioids in excess, either with or without a prescription. Last year, the CDC reported the death toll from opioid analgesics tripled from 1999 to 2008, with a large portion of deaths stemming from recreational use of the prescriptions.

The finding suggests better tracking of prescription use with electronic medical records and physician screening. The authors suggest drug monitoring programs.

Consumers should take advantage of free counseling offered by pharmacists. It's important to read information provided with your prescriptions. Never take another person's medication. If you think you're helping someone control pain by sharing your own prescriptions, the new report shows you could instead be sending them to the morgue. If your health condition is poorly controlled, speak with your doctor about adjusting your medication. Try to find natural ways to deal with pain that include biofeedback, exercise, meditation and acupuncture that are shown to help.

References: CDC Grand Rounds: Prescription Drug Overdoses - a U.S. Epidemic

February 20, 2013