Sedative, Tranquilizer Poisonings on the Rise

Poisoning From Opioids, Other Prescription Drugs Sending More People to the Hospital

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 06, 2010

April 6, 2010 -- More people are landing in the hospital because of poisoning from prescription tranquilizers, sedatives, and opioids, a new study finds.

Hospitalizations for such poisonings increased 65% between 1999 and 2006. That’s double the increase in hospitalizations for poisoning by other drugs and substances, researchers say. The study appears in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Opioids can produce a feeling of euphoria, leading to their recreational use. Tranquilizers and sedatives reduce tension and anxiety and can induce sleep.

“Deaths and hospitalizations associated with prescription drug misuse have reached epidemic proportions,” study author Jeffrey H. Coben, MD, of West Virginia University School of Medicine, says in a news release. Prescription drugs, he says, "are just as powerful and dangerous as other notorious street drugs, and we need to ensure people are aware of these dangers and that treatment services are available for those with substance abuse problems.”

Coben says the largest increase in the number of hospitalized cases over the seven-year period involved poisonings by benzodiazepines, and the largest percentage increase was observed for methadone, at 400%, the authors write.

Unintentional Poisoning From Medications on the Rise

The study says that:

  • Unintentional poisoning is now the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S.
  • In 2005, unintentional poisoning surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional injury death for people 35 to 54.
  • Unintentional poisoning deaths have been on the rise for more than 15 years.
  • Intentional poisonings from prescription opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers rose 130% during the seven-year period, compared to 53% in intentional poisonings from other substances.
  • The largest increase in the number of hospitalizations was caused by benzodiazepines. Hospitalizations from that class of drug increased 39% during the period studied.
  • Hospitalizations for poisoning by barbiturates decreased 41% and hospitalizations for poisoning by antidepressants decreased 13%.
  • Hospitalizations for poisoning by other drugs, medicinal, and biological substances increased 33%.
  • Unintentional poisonings by other substances increased 21%.
  • Unintentional drug-poisoning deaths increased 68% between 1999 and 2004, and the majority of the increase has been attributed to deaths associated with prescription opioids.

Researchers examined statistics from a database known as the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which contains records for 8 million hospitalizations a year.

By using standard diagnosis codes, they say they were able to classify the specific types of drugs in each case. Also, they say it was possible to determine whether poisonings were diagnosed as intentional, unintentional, or undetermined.

Coben says more research is needed on what he describes as a wave of injuries and deaths.

“It is essential that health care providers, pharmacists, insurance providers, state and federal agencies, and the general public all work together to address this crisis,” he says.

Show Sources


News release, American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Coben, J. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, April 2010.

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