Poisoning is now the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States, according to a study by researchers at West Virginia University.

While several recent high-profile Hollywood celebrity cases have brought the problem to public attention, the rates of unintentional poisoning deaths have been on the rise for more than 15 years. Poisoning has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of unintentional injury death among people 35-54 years of age. In a study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that hospitalizations for poisoning by prescription opioids, sedatives and tranquilizers in the U.S. have increased by 65 percent from 1999 to 2006.

“Deaths and hospitalizations associated with prescription drug misuse have reached epidemic proportions,” said the study’s lead author, Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D., of the WVU School of Medicine. “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. Prescription medications 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.”

The largest percentage increase in hospitalizations for poisoning for a specific drug was observed for methadone (400 percent). Poisonings by benzodiazepines increased 39 percent. Hospitalizations for poisoning by barbiturates actually decreased 41 percent, as did hospitalizations for poisoning by antidepressants (a decrease of 13 percent).

In the first comprehensive examination of nationwide hospitalizations associated with these prescription medications, researchers examined data gathered from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which contains records for approximately 8 million hospitalizations per year.

From this data, the authors identified all poisonings by drugs, medicinal, and biological substances reported from 1999-2006, and categorized the specific types of drugs in each case. It was also possible to determine whether the poisoning was diagnosed as intentional, unintentional or undetermined.

While the majority of hospitalized poisonings are classified as unintentional, substantial increases were also demonstrated for intentional overdoses associated with these drugs, likely reflecting their widespread availability in community settings.

The article is “Hospitalizations for Poisoning by Prescription Opioids, Sedatives, and Tranquilizers” by Jeffrey H. Coben, M.D.; Stephen M. Davis, M.P.A., M.S.W.; Paul M. Furbee, M.A.; Rosanna D. Sikora, M.D.; and Roger D. Tillotson, M.D., all of West Virginia University; and Robert M. Bossarte, Ph.D., of WVU and the University of Rochester. The article appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 38, Issue 5 (May 2010) published by Elsevier.


CONTACT: Amy Johns, HSC News Service
304-293-7087, johnsa@wvuh.com