Emergency Rooms are Seeing More Prescription Drug Overdose Cases

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If you head to the emergency room for an urgent medical problem, chances are, you’ll be waiting longer than you planned. You may also be surprised to find yourself sitting alongside a young child. Emergency rooms have seen a major increase in the number of patients who need care for prescription drug overdoses or other drug complications. Even more alarming is new research that shows that numbers of visits to emergency rooms due to accidental drug consumption by children under age five are sharply on the rise.

According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2006, 1,742,887 emergency room visits were logged for some type of patient problem related to abusing substances. The figure represents a dramatic increase of 44 percent in emergency room cases concerning the abuse of prescribed medications, compared to data from two years prior. The data was collected by SAMHSA’s Drug Abuse Warning Network, a tool that observes and analyzes numbers of emergency room visits that are connected to drug misuse.

Of the visits logged in 2006 to emergency rooms, around one-third were connected to cocaine, and more than 290,000 visits were linked to marijuana. In third place for emergency room visits was heroin, followed by amphetamines.

Interestingly, 28 percent of emergency room visits were strictly related to pharmaceutical use. Some patients were reported to be visiting the emergency room for problems resulting from mixing illegal drugs with alcohol, a figure representing 13 percent.

In 2008, even more alarming information surfaced. Visits to emergency rooms because of unintentional consumption of prescribed medicines or other drugs by children under the age of five represented more than half of all E.R. visits, or 68.9 percent of the 100,340 visits logged for pharmaceutical drug accidental misuse.

Though national and local organizations have worked to educate parents and caregivers about the dangers of leaving medication unlocked and out of reach, the numbers of accidental dosages of prescription medications by young children suggest that the threat lingers and the message may not be getting through.

Common drugs consumed by young children who went to the emergency room include benzodiazepines, drugs for sleeplessness and anxiety, and over-the-counter pain medications. Children who took medications for depression or those in the anti-psychotic category represented 8.6 percent of accidental ingestions.

The majority of the children seen in emergency rooms for drug ingestion were sent home, with less than 10 percent being kept in the hospital.

Like most prevention programs concerning drugs, education is the key, say experts. SAMHSA encourages parents to get rid of unused medications and keep them out of reach of young children to help cut costs on the health care sector and prevent accidental deaths.

Efforts to increase knowledge about the dangers of leaving drugs where children can get them, the consequences of mixing drugs and alcohol and the critical need to use prescription dosages safely will likely remain a focus of national and local drug prevention organizations into the next decade.

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