Public Health

Prescription Drug Overdoses Send More People To Hospitals

The recent rash of people taking way too many pain pills isn't restricted to Hollywood celebs. It's part of a nationwide trend, says an ER doc in West Virginia.

Dr. Jeffrey Coben and several colleagues at West Virginia University checked a large, representative sampling of more than a decade's worth of hospitalization records from across the United States. Their main finding: The rates of poisoning from prescription narcotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers jumped 65 percent between 1999 and 2006. That's double the increase seen in poisonings from other substances.

Only some of those people were trying to kill themselves, Coben says. Accidental poisonings from the drugs, which include Valium, Xanax, OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone, among others, increased by 37 percent. Meanwhile, the number of hospitalizations for heroin overdoses during that period stayed flat.

Many people who would never take heroin, Coben says, reach for prescription drugs, instead, to relieve pain or to get high. "There's this common misperception that prescription drugs are safe — safer than street drugs."

And it's not just a young person's problem. The study showed that people between the ages of 35 and 54 accounted for the greatest number of hospitalizations from prescription pill overdose. More women were hospitalized than men.

"Men account for more deaths from these sorts of overdoses," Coben says. "But women account for more hospitalizations — maybe partly because they're more plugged in to the health care system and more likely to seek help."

Maybe. But in the last few years, "unintentional poisoning" has killed more people between the ages of 35 and 54 than car accidents.

Late Monday, the Food and Drug Administration took a step to help curb OxyContin abuse, by approving a new formulation of the powerful narcotic that can't easily be dissolved and injected. Unfortunately, the agency notes, that won't stop people intent on abusing the drug from popping too many of the pills.

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