Prescription overdoses are second leading cause of unintentional deaths in US

"Unintentional poisoning is now the second leading cause of unintentional death in the US," reports Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben of West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. Among people 35 to 54 years old, unintentional poisoning surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional death in 2005.

With the rise in number of patients admitted for poisoning with prescription drugs like tranquilizers, painkillers, sedatives etc. it is time to sit up and take note say researchers in a report released today. Urban middle aged women seem to be the worst affected. Dr. Coben said, "People have seen the headlines related to Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith and they think that's tragic but maybe contained to Hollywood…But the fact of the matter is we are seeing, across the country, very significant increases in serious overdoses associated with these prescription drugs."

According to sources while such cases were seen in 43,000 patients in 1996, the numbers have escalated to 71,000 in 2006. This increase of 65% is about double the increase observed in hospitalizations for poisoning by other drugs and medicines, Coben and colleagues found. Poisoning by opioids, commonly used sedatives and tranquillizers have risen by 37% in the studied years. The biggest percent increase in hospitalizations for poisoning for a specific drug was a quintupling for methadone, according to the team's report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This may be due to the more than 10-fold increase in overall retail sales of this drug from 1997 to 2006, they state.

Dr. Coben tries to find the cause behind this rise. He says, "There is not any single cause…There is increasing availability of powerful prescription drugs in the community and attitudes toward their use tend to be different than attitudes toward using other drugs, especially among young people, who report that prescription drugs are easy to obtain, and they think they are less addictive and less dangerous than street drugs like heroin and cocaine."

According to him "a multifaceted approach is needed" to tackle the situation. "Doctors need to perhaps rethink the types and quantities of medications they are prescribing…And we need to get better messages out to the public in terms of the dangers associated with these medications and combinations of these medications that are being used…We also need to think about law enforcement strategies with regard to illegal markets for distributing prescription drugs."

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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