Drug Overdose Deaths Rise for 11th Consecutive Year
The latest data on overdosing comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and shows that the number of fatal drug overdoses across the U.S. has risen for the 11th straight year.
The CDC report was recently published in February 2013 the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and included collected and analyzed overdose data from 2010, the latest year for which information is available. The information about deaths came from death certificates. However, the death certificates of those who overdosed on drugs are not always clear about whether the incident was accidental or suicidal. Most experts who contributed to the study and the analysis of its results believe that the deaths were largely accidental.
The report concluded that there were 38,329 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2010, up nearly 4% from 2009. Nearly 60 percent of those deaths were from prescription medications, while the rest were the result of illicit drugs. Three-quarters of the prescription overdoses were caused by opioids such as Vicodin and OxyContin. Other medications that resulted in overdose deaths were anti-anxiety drugs like Valium. The report buttresses a Los Angeles Times investigation last year that showed a surge in painkiller prescriptions in California and across the nation has had fatal consequences.
Thomas Frieden, head of the CDC, told the Associated Press: "The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly."
People who have overdosed or suffer other complications from prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers, are commonly seen in emergency rooms around the country. While some doctors believe the effect will level off as people come to realize the inherent danger in these drugs, others worry that the increase in deaths will continue.
The drugs causing so many of the overdose deaths in the U.S. belong to a class of medications called opioid painkillers. The name refers to the fact that they are either found naturally in the opium poppy or are derived from those natural compounds. Morphine and codeine, for instance, are natural poppy compounds, while oxycodone, the ingredient in brand name OxyContin, Vicodin, Fentanyl, methadone and others, are synthesized from these natural compounds.
Opioids are highly addictive because they cause a flood of neurotransmitters in the brain that produce a feeling of euphoria. Over time, that pleasure pathway in the brain gets altered by the drug and the user needs more and more to experience the same high. The effect is a rapid dependence on the medication.
When users who are prescribed opioids for pain take the medication as directed, it can be incredibly useful. For those who suffer from severe or chronic pain, these medications greatly improve quality of life. However, many abuse them to get high and because they are legal, prescription medications, assume that they are not as dangerous as street drugs.
Some opioids are controlled more strictly than others, including oxycodone and morphine. Recently a federal panel of experts voted to recommend that the same strict control be put into place for other opioids, such as Vicodin and many others.
Hospitals are also starting to play a role in controlling opioid drugs. In many cases, addicts will go to emergency rooms to get prescriptions because their own doctors have cut them off. Hospitals are beginning to put policies in place to avoid such instances of abuse. For instance, some hospitals no longer allow doctors to give prescriptions to those who claim they lost their pain medication.
Research into new painkillers is another important step. Those who develop new drugs are on the hunt for a compound that will mitigate pain as successfully as opioids, but without the addictive side effect. One strategy is to create a medication that does not produce the same high as opioids.