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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Sharp Rise in ER Visits Tied to Abuse of Sedative

Use of Xanax along with painkillers such as Oxycontin can be especially deadly, experts note

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, May 22, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- There's been a steep increase in the number of Americans being treated at emergency departments for abuse of the sedative alprazolam, best known as Xanax, federal officials reported Thursday.

The number of emergency department visits related to abuse of alprazolam (brand names Xanax, Xanax XR, and Niravam) climbed from more than 57,000 in 2005 to nearly 124,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

"When used as directed, alprazolam is safe and effective, but misuse can result in serious health consequences," SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde said in an agency news release.

"This report highlights the need to educate people about the dangers of misusing or sharing prescription medications and the importance of properly disposing of unused medication," she added.

In the United States, alprazolam was the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication in 2011 and the 13th highest-selling medication in 2012, the report said.

Medical experts weren't surprised by the new numbers.

"In 2010, Xanax alone accounted for more than 10 percent of all nonmedical use of prescription medications in the United States, [and] this illicit use more than doubled in five years," said Dr. Eric Collins, an addiction psychiatrist who is also physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn.

He pointed to an even bigger threat.

Xanax abuse "is especially concerning in light of the dramatic rise in nonmedical use of opioid painkillers like oxycodone [Oxycontin] and Vicodin, because these increases in nonmedical use parallel the rapid rise in accidental overdose deaths in our country," Collins said.

"The combination of Xanax or other similar sedatives with opioid painkillers and/or alcohol is particularly dangerous because the combination can cause individuals to go to sleep and then stop breathing," he explained.

In total, there were about 1.2 million emergency department visits related to prescription drug abuse in 2011, SAMHSA noted.

Another expert agreed that the rate of increase of ER visits tied to prescription drug abuse is alarming.

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