Thursday, 20 April 2006 00:00

Fatal ODs on Rx Meds a Growing Problem

THURSDAY, April 20 (HealthDay News) -- The rate of accidental, fatal overdoses involving prescription medications is rising faster than those caused by illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin, according to a 10-year study from New Mexico.

The majority of prescription drug deaths are caused by opioid pain relievers, such as codeine, morphine and Demerol, the researchers noted.

"The increasing role of opioid painkillers in unintentional drug overdose deaths suggests that overdose prevention efforts would be well targeted at this drug class," lead researcher Mark Mueller, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a prepared statement.

Reporting in the May American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Mueller and his colleagues analyzed statewide New Mexico medical examiner reports and identified 765 prescription drug overdose deaths from 1994 to 2003. Opioid painkillers were involved in more than 75 percent of those deaths, tranquilizers in one third, and antidepressants in 25 percent of the deaths. The total exceeds 100 percent because some deaths were caused by multiple drugs.

In 1994, accidental prescription drug overdoses accounted for 1.9 out of 100,000 deaths. By 2003, that had increased to 5.3 per 100,000 deaths. That's a 179 percent increase, compared to a 121 percent increase in unintentional overdose deaths caused by illegal drugs over the same period.

"While we would all agree on the value of properly prescribed and used opioids, this study illustrates the need to reinforce proper prescribing practices and usage of prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers," Mueller said. "It will also be important to find new ways to prevent deaths due to prescription drugs acquired through street diversion."

More information

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices has advice on safe medication use.