June 18, 2010 in Nation/World

ER visits for legal drugs up

Medications send as many to hospital as illegal drugs
Mike Stobbe Associated Press
Study shows oxycodone most abused

In the drug use study, federal researchers collected data from 231 nonfederal, short-stay general hospitals that operate 24-hour emergency rooms. They found that the number of ER visits for nonmedical uses of prescription narcotics increased from 144,644 in 2004 to 305,885 in 2008, a 111 percent increase. The most widely abused drugs were oxycodone, which rose 152 percent to 105,214 visits, hydrocodone, which rose 123 percent to 89,051 visits, and methadone, which rose 73 percent to 63,629 visits.

Los Angeles Times

ATLANTA – For the first time, abuse of painkillers and other medication is sending as many people to the emergency room as the use of illegal drugs.

In 2008, ERs saw an estimated 1 million visits from people abusing prescription or over-the-counter medicines – mostly painkillers and sedatives. That was about the same number of visits from those overdosing on heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs, according to a government report released Thursday.

Only five years earlier, illegal drug visits outnumbered those from legal medications by a 2-to-1 margin.

In other words, the number of ER visits from medication abuse doubled, said Peter Delany of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“It’s a pretty startling jump,” Delany said. He led a team that worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the report.

Painkillers and sedatives clearly drove the trend. ER visits for the painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone more than doubled from 2004 to 2008.

The estimates are based on emergency room data from more than 200 U.S. hospitals. Many of the cases may be overdoses, but some may come from mixing drugs or combining them with alcohol, Delany said.

Health officials are not sure why painkiller abuse rose so dramatically. But the number of prescriptions has been increasing, so some of those who ended up in ERs may have gotten their medicine legally.

The use of painkillers has grown in recent years as doctors tried to correct the traditional undertreatment of pain, and pharmaceutical companies ramped up marketing of new pain medications.

The authors did not estimate how many of the ER patients died. A CDC report last year found that the rate of drug-related deaths roughly doubled from the late 1990s to 2006, and most of the increase was attributed to prescription opiates such as methadone, Oxycontin and Vicodin.

The report is being published this week in a CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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