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Prescription Drugs Claiming More Lives than Street Drugs

Non-medical use of prescription drugs is on the rise and so is the number of related deaths caused by overdose. In fact, in the seven year period from 1999 to 2006, we saw a 65 percent increase in the number of overdoses caused by prescription pain medications, specifically opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers. And, in 2006, painkillers such as methadone and morphine claimed more lives than illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine combined.

The public and especially the younger population have the perception that prescription pain medications are safer because they can be obtained legally by a doctor with a prescription. Prescription meds do not carry the same negative stigma that street drugs do, and are therefore, viewed as more acceptable. In reality, they can be just as dangerous and addictive.

Sedatives are a group of opioid pain medications commonly used today to help us relax, sleep, or relieve anxiety. When taken properly, they can provide great relief. When misused, they can become deadly. Benzodiazepines, or tranquilizers, are one group of sedatives that can be especially dangerous because of their widespread recreational use, which can lead to dependence and accidental overdose.

Benzodiazepines such as Valium can be extremely dangerous when mixed with other substances. According to a study conducted by the Health Research Board in Ireland, while overdose of benzodiazepines can cause a person to breathe slower restricting oxygen to the brain, enter a coma, or even die, it is usually not benzodiazepine alone that will cause these problems. Typically, it doesn’t become fatal unless it is mixed with other such substances, most commonly alcohol and opiates such as heroin.

A different study conducted by researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, showed that most overdoses of prescription opioids, sedatives and tranquilizers (the main pain medications studied), were not accidents. In fact, intentional overdoses of pain relievers jumped by 130 percent from 1999 to 2006. While still significant, accidental overdoses increased by only 37 percent.

Experts suspect that the increase in intentional overdose was caused in part by ease of access and excessive prescription of these drugs. They don’t see the problem getting better anytime soon, either, as drug companies are pocketing big bucks on profits from increased sales reaching into the billions. While researchers are quick to add that many details surrounding the overdoses such as full toxicology reports were unknown, it is clear that the prevalence of these drugs and their perceived acceptance is not helping matters.

Posted on January 19th, 2011

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