Prescription Drug Poisonings Rise Dramatically


Prescription drug poisonings usually make the headlines when they involve a celebrity who has intentionally or unintentionally overdosed on sedatives, tranquilizers, or narcotics. Yet among the general population, poisoning by prescription drugs is also a headline: it is the second main cause of unintentional injury death in the United States.

From 1999 to 2006, the total number of hospitalizations related to poisoning by prescription sedatives, opioids, and tranquilizers increased by 65 percent. That is just one of the findings reported in a new study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study was the first comprehensive evaluation of hospitalizations related to prescription drug misuse and utilized data collected from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which contains records for an estimated 8 million hospitalizations per year. The study’s research team, which was led by Jeffrey H. Coben, MD, of the West Virginia University School of Medicine, was able to identify not only which medications were involved but whether the poisonings were intentional, unintentional, or unknown.

A breakdown of the findings shows that the largest increase in hospitalizations for poisonings for a specific drug was for methadone, at 400 percent. Methadone is a strictly controlled substance for the treatment of narcotic withdrawal and, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is administered orally on a daily basis under strict program conditions and guidelines. However, like any controlled substance, there is the risk of abuse.


Other findings from the study show that unintentional poisonings by opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers increased by 37 percent, while hospitalizations related to poisonings by other drugs increased by 33 percent. Intentional poisonings from prescription sedatives, tranquilizers, and opioids increased by 130 percent compared with a 53 percent increased in intentional poisonings using other substances.

Not all the news was bad: a decrease in the percentage of people who were hospitalized for poisoning was seen in two categories, barbiturates (41 percent) and antidepressants (13 percent).

Coben noted that the number of people who are dying or who require hospitalization related to prescription drug poisoning has “reached epidemic proportions.” He emphasized that “prescription medications are just as powerful and dangerous as other notorious street drugs, and we need to ensure people are aware of these dangers and that treatment services are available for those with substance abuse problems.”

Abuse and misuse of prescription drugs is a problem for people of all ages. Although many people think of adolescents when referring to drug abuse issues, this study found that unintentional poisoning from prescriptions drugs has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the main cause of unintentional injury death among people age 35. Prescription drug abuse is also a growing problem among older adults, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Therefore the dramatic rise in prescription drug poisonings reported in this new study highlights the need for more research and preventive measures across the board.

Coben JH et al. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2010 May; 38(5)
Office of National Drug Control Policy


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