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Prescription Drugs Now Lead to as Many ER Visits as Illicit Drugs

About a million people a year visit hospital emergency rooms across the country after taking drugs like cocaine or heroin – and now, about a million people a year visit these same ERs after taking medications like Vicodin or OxyContin.

In 2004, illegal drugs caused twice the number of emergency room visits as prescription medications. By 2008, prescription medications had caught up and today people are just likely rushed to an emergency room after taking a few too many FDA approved pills as they are for heroin or cocaine.

By 2008, about a million people a year were visiting emergency rooms after taking prescription or over the counter medications.

In a study run by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), researchers found that between 2004 and 2008 emergency room visits increased by:

  • 152% for Oxycodone
  • 123% for hydrocodone
  • 73% for methadone

In 2004, 144 644 people visited an emergency room after using a prescription opiate – by 2008 that number had more than doubled to 305 885. 

SAMHSA director Pamela Hyde says that this increase in ER visits is putting a real strain on the healthcare system, and CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told policy makers, "We urgently need to take action."

Experts say they’re not sure how to explain this dramatic increase in ER visits by people taking FDA approved medications. Speculating, some say that the increase may accompany an improved treatment of pain – and an accompanying increase in opiate prescriptions. Others, like Susan Foster of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse think that people just aren’t well enough informed about the dangers of these medications. She says, "People believe they're safer because they're prescribed by doctors and approved by the FDA."

In commenting on the trend, the nation’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske said, "The abuse of prescription drugs is our nation's fastest-growing drug problem."

The full CDC report can be read in the June 18 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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