Deaths From Drug Poisoning Jump Sixfold

Poisoning From Prescription Painkiller Driving the Increase in Drug Deaths

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on December 20, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 20, 2011 -- The number of deaths from drug poisonings in the U.S. has increased sixfold since 1980.

In 2008, more than 41,000 people in the U.S. died from intentional and accidental poisonings. Nine out of 10 poisoning deaths were due to drugs.

In 2008, these deaths exceeded the number of deaths from automobile accidents in the U.S., making poisoning the leading cause of injury death in the country, according to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics that focused on the time period from 1980 to 2008.

Fully 40% of the deaths in 2008 involved the use of prescription opioid pain relievers such as codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone, the new report shows. This is up from 25% in 1999. The number of drug-related deaths involving opioids actually tripled from 1999 to 2008.

A recent report by the CDC backs this up: It showed that 40 Americans die from prescription painkiller abuse every day.

Deaths involving drug poisoning may also involve illicit drugs. Cocaine was involved in about 5,100 deaths and heroin was involved in about 3,000 deaths in 2008. Drug poisoning deaths were higher among males aged 45 to 54, non-Hispanic whites, and American Indian or Alaskan Natives in 2008, according to the new data.

Drug Deaths Surpass Car Crash Deaths

Sadly, the new findings are “right on target,” says James T. O'Donnell, a pharmacologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

“What we are seeing is really a switch from illegal drug death to prescription drug death,” he says. “I think that it will get worse before it gets better.”

There are many reasons for this uptick. There was a change in how pain was treated in the early 1990s, he says. “Treatment of pain became much more aggressive.” he says. “This increased the number of people who were taking pain medications.”

It is simple math: More people taking more pills equals more accidental and intentional overdoses.

“There are leftover pills in the house and that means people will use them,” O’Donnell says. “This is like leaving loaded gun around the home.”

Deadly Combinations

Harris Stratyner, PhD, says the only way to turn things around is by educating the prescribers and the people who they prescribe these drugs to. He is the clinical regional vice president of Caron Treatment Centers and is based in New York City.

Many states don’t have enough doctors. This means they can’t properly monitor or inform their patients about the dangers of prescription drug misuse and abuse, he says.

“People are not just overdosing on one thing,” Stratyner tells WebMD. “Many people don’t realize you are not supposed to drink alcohol when you take opioids.”

When you take prescription opioid medication along with alcohol and other illegal substances like marijuana, you've got trouble, he says.

Show Sources


Harris Stratyner, PhD, clinical regional vice president, Caron Treatment Centers, New York City.

James T. O'Donnell, pharmacologist, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago.

NCHS Data Brief, August 2011.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Nov. 1, 2011.

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