Prescription Drugs Outpace Car Accidents as Leading Cause of Death


Car accidents have been the leading cause of death in the United States for decades. Recently, for the first time, the leading cause of death was replaced in 16 states by drugs.

And not the kind of drugs you’d expect.

While illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine do contribute a fair share to the death toll, the sharpest increase in fatalities was due to prescription opiates such as methadone, Oxycontin and Vicodin. The number of deaths from methadone alone increased sevenfold between 1999 and 2006, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The number of states where deaths caused by overdoses and other drug-related fatalities (including organ damage from long-term drug use) outnumbered those caused by car accidents doubled to 16 between 2003 and 2006. Those states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

The CDC report also determined the following about drug-related deaths:

  • Opioid painkillers were involved in about 40 percent of all poisoning deaths in 2006.
  • The number of fatal poisonings involving opioids more than tripled in the U.S. between 1999 and 2006, rising from 4,000 to 13,800.
  • The number of poisoning deaths involving methadone increased nearly sevenfold, from 790 in 1999 to 5,420 in 2006, the most rapid increase among opioid analgesics and other narcotics involved in poisoning deaths.
  • The opioid death rate was highest for males, Caucasians and people between the ages of 35 and 54.

Why Methadone?

Methadone is primarily used to treat heroin addiction, but it has also become a widely prescribed painkiller. Nearly 4 million prescriptions for methadone are written each year, and about 1.5 million people age 12 and older have used the drug for non-medical purposes at least once, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Alcohol.

An increasing number of prescriptions mean that the drug is more widely available, contributing to the increase in methadone-related deaths. When acquired illegally or improperly, or mixed with other drugs, the risk of overdose skyrockets.

“A lack of knowledge about the unique properties of methadone was identified as contributing to some deaths,” said the CDC report.

Dangers of Methadone Use

While methadone is effective for managing pain and treating heroin and opiate addiction if used properly, it can be deadly when used incorrectly or recreationally. The risks of incorrect use of methadone include the following:

  • Severe respiratory distress
  • Coma
  • Drowsiness
  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Constricted pupils
  • Reduction in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Fluid accumulation in the lungs
  • Death

Mixing methadone with other drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, Xanax and Valium — as half of the reported deaths involved — can also lead to deadly results.

“The involvement of benzodiazepines — sedatives used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizures — is particularly troubling as previous studies have shown that people who were prescribed both methadone and benzodiazepine were at greater risk of overdose than those prescribed only one of these drugs,” read the report.

Methadone may also produce psychological and physical dependence and tolerance, often requiring users to undergo outpatient or inpatient treatment to overcome their reliance on the drug.

Proper Use of Methadone

When used properly and in a controlled environment, methadone is an effective drug. It should only be used as prescribed to treat narcotic addiction in detoxification or maintenance programs, or to treat pain as prescribed by a medical professional.

Methadone works to suppress the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin and other opiates, and can stay in your body for several days. While in an outpatient or inpatient treatment center, patients will receive enough of the drug to allay withdrawal symptoms, but not enough to produce a narcotic high. When use of methadone is monitored, the chances of becoming addicted to the drug are slim.

If you are prescribed methadone, be sure to only use the drug as indicated by your doctor or other medical professional. Not doing so can transform you from a recovery success story into an unfortunate statistic.

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