Most Overdoses Involved Opioids

Prescription opioids involved in most overdoses seen in ERs, followed by heroin overdoses

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) When taken incorrectly, prescription medications may be just as deadly as illegal drugs. Recent research found that most overdoses involved prescription opioids.

The authors of the research found that many of the patients who overdosed on opioids had chronic illnesses.

They said doctors should be careful when prescribing opioids to patients with these conditions and counsel them about overdose risks.

"Opioid overdose exacts a significant financial and health care utilization burden on the US health care system," the study authors, led by Michael A. Yokell, ScB, of Stanford University School of Medicine in California, wrote. "Most patients in our sample overdosed on prescription opioids, suggesting that further efforts to stem the prescription opioid overdose epidemic are urgently needed."

The authors used the 2010 Nationwide Emergency Department Sample to study 135,971 emergency room visits for opioid overdose. Among those cases, 67.8 percent involved prescription opioids.

Opioids are a class of medications used to relieve pain. Some common opioids include hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin), oxycodone (brand name OxyContin) and morphine (brand name Avinza).

Heroin — an illegal drug — was involved in the second highest portion of the overdose cases: 16.1 percent. Following closely at 13.4 percent of cases were unspecified opioids. Unspecified opioids were not necessarily prescribed by a doctor.

Many of the patients who overdosed on opioids had other illnesses, such as chronic mental health, circulatory and respiratory conditions. The authors said doctors should take extra care when prescribing opioids to these patients and counsel them about the dangers of overdose.

The authors noted that the death rate for overdoses overall was low once patients came to the ER. Only 1.4 percent of these patients died. The authors said this finding supported a need for increased use of emergency services like ambulances.

While the authors found a high number of ER visits for overdose in 2010, they said 135,971 is likely only a portion of the true number of patients who overdose each year.

"This number represents only a portion of all opioid overdoses because many individuals never present to an [ER] or die without activation of the emergency medical services system," the authors wrote.

This research was published Oct. 27 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Stanford University School of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Study author Traci C. Greene, PhD, worked for Inflexxion, a health care data company.

Review Date: 
October 27, 2014
Last Updated:
October 28, 2014