Most ER Visits for Prescription Painkiller Overdose, Study Finds

Heroin overdoses are gaining a lot of attention from public health officials, doctors and the general U.S. population. However, it’s worth noting that Americans experience prescription painkiller overdoses far more often than they experience heroin overdoses.

Regardless of the substance in use, a person experiencing a severe overdose can easily die or develop serious, lifelong complications. In a report updated in October 2014, researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the frequency of prescription overdoses across the U.S. These researchers also identified the prescription substances most likely to play a role in an overdose, as well as those segments of the population with the highest prescription overdose risks.

How Many Overdoses?

The information reported by the CDC researchers comes from federal research projects conducted in 2011 and 2012. The data from these projects indicates that, in 2011, 1.4 million Americans visited an emergency room after overdosing on a prescription medication. This figure equals more than half of all drug-related ER visits. In 2012, a total of 41,502 people died from a drug or medication overdose. Almost 80 percent of these deaths were attributed to an accidental overdose. However, suicide attempts accounted for slightly more than 13 percent of all fatal drug- or medication-related overdose events. In addition, homicide attempts accounted for 0.2 percent of all fatal overdoses. In roughly 6.7 percent of all cases, doctors could not determine why the victims of fatal overdoses consumed a drug or medication. Prescription medications were the source of overdose in more than half (53 percent) of all cases resulting in death.

Which Prescription Medications?

In 2011, more than half a million of all overdose-related emergency room visits involved the consumption of at least one of a large group of sleep and anti-anxiety medications known as benzodiazepines. Common examples of these medications include clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), temazepam (Restoril), triazolam (Halcion) and alprazolam (Xanax). The second most common source of prescription medication overdoses was some sort of opioid painkiller; roughly 420,000 people overdosed on this type of medication in 2011. Common examples of widely available opioid painkillers include codeine, oxycodone (Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic) and morphine (Avinza, Kadian).

While Americans overdose on benzodiazepines more often than they overdose on opioid painkillers, opioid painkillers account for more fatal overdose events than benzodiazepines. In 2012, more than two out of three fatal prescription medication overdoses (72 percent) were related to the consumption of an opioid painkiller, while just 30 percent of fatal prescription medication overdoses involved the consumption of a benzodiazepine. The total percentage is higher than 100 because many overdose victims take more than one kind of medication. People who die from opioid medication overdoses frequently have benzodiazepines in their systems. Conversely, people who die from benzodiazepine overdoses frequently have opioid painkillers in their systems.

Who Is at Risk?

According to 2011 figures compiled by the CDC, boys and men overdose on drugs and prescription medications somewhat more often than girls and women (56 percent vs. 44 percent). In terms of age, the greatest risks for a drug or medication overdose occur among adults who have reached or passed their 21st birthdays; more than four out of five overdose victims (82 percent) fall within this wide age range.

In addition to overdosing on prescription medications more often than women, men die from such overdoses significantly more often than women. In terms of age, adults between the ages of 45 and 49 represent the population group most likely to die from a drug or prescription medication overdose. In terms of racial/ethnic background, the three highest rates of drug or medication overdose-related fatality occur (in descending order of frequency) among European Americans, American Indian/Native Alaskans and African Americans. The population group least likely to die from a drug or medication overdose is children below the age of 15. The CDC researchers attribute this fact to the low rate of drug use among children in this age range.

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