February 23, 2012

Carol Pearson

A government health agency says the United States is in the grip of an epidemic of prescription drug overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more people die from such overdoses than from all illegal drugs combined. And accidental prescription drug deaths in the United States each year outnumber highway traffic fatalities. Recent celebrity deaths from apparent prescription drug overdoses have helped to put this public health problem into the spotlight.

The death of American singer and actress Whitney Houston has sparked discussion about accidental overdosing on prescription drugs.

The official cause of Houston's death is still pending, but authorities found a small amount of prescription drugs in her hotel room, and people reported seeing her drinking champagne in the days before her death. Some of these medicines slow down the central nervous system. Alcohol does the same.  The combination could be deadly.  

Jennifer Brandtt is a doctor of pharmacology at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.  

"Something that we’re seeing more and more of, particularly in the news, is combinations of pain killers, things like oxycontin, percoset, vicodin, and anti-anxiety medications," Brandt said.

Millions of Americans take anti-depressants, sleep aids and pain killers. The pharmacy's label on the bottle can provide a false sense of security. This young man, known as "Greg," used medicines prescribed to his parents.

"I could rationalize and justify taking these pills because doctors prescribed them. It wasn't like I was buying a white bag on the street," he said.

A few years ago, doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noticed a trend in deaths from prescription drug use. In 2008, they published a study confirming their observations. Dr. Aron Hall is one of the co-authors.

"We found that a majority of people who overdosed on prescription drugs did not have a prescription for the drugs that killed them," Hall said.

But patients also have access to their own prescriptions, over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies.

"Every medication that you add increases the risk for harm as well," Brandt said.

If a patient sees more than one doctor and uses more than one pharmacy, a potentially dangerous consequence is that no one, at least no health care professional, has a complete list of his or her medications. It's also hard to know how someone reacts to even one type of medicine.

"Every patient reacts differently to medication…some are extremely sensitive, some take much, much more medication and don’t have any effect at all.  Unfortunately, there’s really no way to know that for sure," Brandt said.

Brandt recommends sticking with one primary physician, and if you do see specialists, make sure all your doctors know what medicines you are taking.  She also recommends using only one pharmacy, and if you want to take something else, ask a pharmacist if it is safe to take with your prescriptions.