Prescription drug use in America has skyrocketed in the past decade, with some studies showing that regular use of prescription medications has more than doubled among the general population since the start of the new millennium. Studies also show that nearly half of the adult population takes more than one prescription medication. With numbers like that, it’s inevitable that the rates of prescription drug dependency and accidental overdose have also sharply increased.
In 2010, Oklahoma had the fourth highest unintentional poisoning death rate in the United States. In fact, prescription drug abuse has become Oklahoma’s fastest-growing drug problem, and it is one to which no one is immune.
Painkillers and Opioids
Since the late 1990s, prescription painkillers have been the most common cause of overdose deaths nationwide. Opioid narcotics are commonly prescribed, relatively inexpensive, and potentially highly addictive medications used for pain management. Physicians often prescribe opiates to patients recovering from surgery, those with injuries, or chronic conditions such as cancer. They are also used for toothaches and dental pain, and can be found in some prescription cough suppressants. They work by lowering the number of pain signals your body sends to your brain, and by changing the way your brain responds to those signals.
When a patient becomes addicted, the drug’s euphoric effects begin driving the body’s need to use it, which in most cases only happens if the drug is misused or the directions aren’t followed. While opioids are highly effective as acute pain relievers, they are only recommended for short-term use because of their potential for dependency.
Another commonly used—and misused—prescription drug is alprazolam, an anti- anxiolytic belonging to the benzodiazepine class of drugs. Alprazolam (trade name Xanax) is approved for use in anxiety disorders, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder. Alprazolam possesses anti-anxioltic, sedative, hypnotic, skeletal muscle relaxant, anticonvulsant and amnesiac properties, and many experts in the field feel it may be highly addictive in some cases. Use of alcohol with alprazolam is not advised. Adverse effects include low blood pressure, shallow breathing and hallucinations, as it is a central nervous system depressant. When mixed with other central nervous system depressants—such as narcotics—alprazolam can even be lethal.
Avy Doran-Redus is the Project Coordinator for the Unintentional Poison Prevention Programs within the Injury Prevention Service at the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH). “Oklahomans need to be aware of the risks associated with prescription drugs and only take medications as prescribed.” In fact, according to the Department of Health, of the nearly 3,200 unintentional poisoning deaths that occurred in Oklahoma between 2007–2011, 81 percent involved prescription medications. “Of those, 87 percent involved a prescription pain killer,” says Doran-Redus. To put it in perspective, more deaths in Oklahoma involve hydrocodone each year than methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine combined. “From 2002–2010, hospitalization charges due to unintentional poisonings increased 265 percent,” notes Doran-Redus.
Overdose often occurs in cases where the patient has a legitimate prescription for the drug and mixes it with alcohol or another medication that may not be advised. While some people purchase prescription drugs illegally, it’s important to realize that having a valid prescription doesn’t necessarily safeguard anyone, especially if they use more than one pharmacy. Using one regular pharmacy allows pharmacists to review your prescription profile with each new medication and catch any potential problems. However, if patients use more than one pharmacy, this valuable service may not be available. In addition, remember to disclose all prescription and over-the-counter medications you are taking to your physician or pharmacist.
For more information on preventing unintentional overdose, contact the OSDH Injury Prevention Service at 405-271-3430. If you think you may have a problem with prescription or other drug dependency, call 211. To report illegal distribution or diversion of prescription drugs, you can contact the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics at 1-800-522-8031. For any questions you may have about specific medications, contact your pharmacist or healthcare provider.
Safety Tips From the Oklahoma State Department of Health
For optimal safety in using prescription medications, the OSDH offers the following suggestions:
- Only take medications as prescribed and never take more than the recommended dosage, especially when taking opioid painkillers.
- Never share or sell your prescription drugs.
- Dispose of unused, unneeded or expired prescription drugs only at approved drug disposal sites.
- Keep all pain medications in a safe place to avoid theft and access to children.
- Keep medicines in their original bottles or containers.
- Never drink alcohol while taking medication.
- Put the Poison Control number, 1-800-222-1222, on or near every home telephone and cell phone for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week access.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and single mom to two girls. An Edmond resident, she graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma and is an HR manager in the medical field.