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Pain pills cause more to overdose at home




CHICAGO

Deaths from medication mistakes at home, like actor Heath Ledger’s accidental overdose, rose dramatically during the past two decades, an analysis of U.S. death certificates finds.

The authors blame soaring home use of prescription painkillers and other potent drugs, which 25 years ago were given mainly inside hospitals.

The findings, based on nearly 50 million U.S. death certificates, were published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Of those, more than 224,000 involved fatal medication errors, including overdoses and mixing prescription drugs with alcohol or street drugs.

Deaths from medication mistakes at home increased from 1,132 deaths in 1983 to 12,426 in 2004. Adjusted for population growth, that amounts to an increase of more than 700 percent during that time.

In contrast, there was only a 5 percent increase in fatal medication errors away from home, including hospitals, and not involving alcohol or street drugs.

Abuse of prescription drugs plays a role, but it’s unclear how much. Valid prescriptions taken in error, especially narcotics such as methadone and oxycodone, account for a growing number of deaths, said experts who reviewed the study.

The increase was steepest in death rates from mixing medicine with alcohol or street drugs at home.

Many patients ignore the risk of mixing alcohol with prescriptions, said Cynthia Kuhn of Duke University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study.

“They think, ‘Oh, one drink won’t hurt.’ Then they have three or four,” Kuhn said.

The increase in deaths was highest among baby boomers, people in their 40s and 50s.

People are sharing prescriptions at an alarming rate. One recent study found 23 percent of people say they have loaned their prescription medicine to someone else and 27 percent say they have borrowed someone else’s prescription drugs.


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