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Unintentional Drug Overdose

Every 19 minutes, someone dies from an unintentional drug overdose, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly 76 people each day.

The number of deaths caused by unintentional drug overdose has increased so drastically, and continues to increase, that the CDC and other federal agencies are now using the term “epidemic” to describe the trend. While illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin do contribute to the overall number of deaths, prescription drug overdoses actually account for more deaths than both cocaine and heroin combined, and the prescription drugs of abuse most notably on the rise are opioids, a powerful class of pain relievers.

Photo Courtesy of CDC

In some cases, overdosing on prescribed painkillers may simply be a result of poor judgment and uncomfortable pain. However, the increase in unintentional deaths resulting from prescription drug abuse is reportedly also a result of the purposeful misuse of legal opioid prescriptions in place of illicit drugs.

Those who are prescribed strong opioid painkillers are a particular concern due to the habit-forming nature of these medications. Patients may develop a reliance on the drug and take more medicine than they are prescribed, an often deadly mistake. While opioids are effective at relieving pain, taking too much can cause a person to stop breathing.

Overprescription of pharmaceuticals, especially opioids, has become a national issue as federal departments begin taking a closer look at prescribing practices across the U.S.

Recently, two Central Florida CVS pharmacies had their licenses revoked by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) due to accusations by the DEA that the pharmacies were ignoring the state’s growing prescription drug abuse epidemic “by dispensing excessive amounts of oxycodone,” a strong, potentially habitforming painkiller.

“The DEA suspended the stores’ licenses after it found evidence in 2010 and early last year that pharmacists there had dispensed hundreds of thousands of tablets of the popular painkiller, including filling multiple prescriptions for out-of-state customers,” reads a USA Today article published on September 11th 2012.

Will Abbot, the Vice President of CVS, said that the company did take steps to rectify the problem, including retraining pharmacists who dispensed large amounts of oxycodone. However, the DEA claims those efforts were not made until the warrants were issued.

 A 2008 study by the Utah Department of Health, found that most individuals prescribed opioids were issued more than they used and did not dispose of their medication. Subsequently the Utah Department of Health initiated educational efforts to encourage individuals to properly dispose of extra medication in hopes of limiting the availability of leftover medication.

The DEA sponsors a National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. One event took place on April 28th this year. By providing 5,659 “take-back” sites across the nation, more than 276 tons of prescription medication was properly discarded. The April event and the previous four “take-back” days have collected an accumulated 774 tons of extra or expired medication.

Its success led the DEA to provide a second opportunity this year for the public to dispose of unwanted or expired medication safely, on September 29th, from 10 AM to 2 PM. Click here for list of local sites.

Where an overuse or misuse of prescription drugs is not the cause of death, misinformation and mistakes prove to be just as deadly.

Dangerous prescription drug interactions have long been a leading cause of death. Those particularly susceptible are the elderly, who are more likely to take multiple medications and, whose doctors and pharmacists may be unaware of their current drug regimens. Simple mistakes like taking two medications too close together, taking different medicines with the same active ingredient together, or reading the dosage amount incorrectly can be deadly.

Due to the growing concern over the rise in unintentional drug overdoses, new prescription drug monitoring programs or PDMPs are being used across the United States. These databases provide information for doctors to track what prescription drugs their patients are taking or have taken, allowing prescribers to limit the risk of fatal drug interactions and overprescriptions.

Want more info? Check out the articles below:

Tightening the Lid on Pain Prescriptions – New York Times

FDA Unveils Safety Measures for Opioid Painkillers

The American Association of Poison Control Centers supports the nation’s 57 poison centers in their efforts to prevent and treat poison exposures. Poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We take calls in more than 150 languages and from the hearing impaired.

For questions about poison or if you think someone has been exposed to a poison, call 1-800-222-1222 to reach your local poison center. 

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