Actor Heath Ledger's highly publicized recent death is focusing more attention on the skyrocketing overdose fatalities in the US propelled mainly by prescription drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription drugs have overtaken cocaine and heroin combined as the leading cause of lethal overdoses. And treatment specialists across the country are seeing a huge increase in people with prescription drug problems of all kinds turning up at drug detox programs for help.
Although overdose deaths have been increasing since the early 1990s, recent prescription drug death statistics have risen so dramatically they have created the first increase in 25 years in the nation's death rate from injuries of all kinds, the CDC said in a December study. Prescription drug abuse and overdose statistics are borne out in the changing demographic of people arriving at drug detox programs everywhere. A glance at news summaries from across the US shows an alarming rise in prescription drug dependencies requiring medical drug detox among ordinary professional working people - far more than heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other traditional street drugs.
"Unintentional poisoning deaths - 95 percent of which involve drug overdoses - increased from 12,186 in 1999 to 20,950 in 2004, " said CDC injury prevention expert Dr. Len Paulozzi. “During that time prescription drugs overtook cocaine and heroin combined as the leading cause of lethal overdoses. "
The majority of overdose deaths are linked to opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and methadone, says the CDC. But drug poisoning deaths involving other psychotherapeutic drugs, including tranquilizers and antidepressants, rose a whopping 84 percent from 1999 to 2004. And a growing percentage of accidental deaths involve dangerous combinations of prescription drugs, such as antidepressants and benzodiazepines with opiates.
Whether prescription drugs are obtained legally or illegally, the sheer numbers and variety of them, their myriad side effects, and complex sets of withdrawal symptoms - especially when taken in random combinations - have driven drug detox specialists to develop better methods to help victims come off the drugs without serious incident.
"Depending on an individual's DNA and metabolism, drug combinations can create further problems and cause the person to experience one or more of the more damaging side effects of the drugs, " said Steve Hayes, Director of Novus Medical Detox Center in Pasco County, Florida. “Combinations can unexpectedly compromise someone's central nervous system and rapidly lead to collapse, coma and even death. Drug detox that takes into account each individual's metabolism has become the safest way out for the many thousands of people who become dependent on prescriptions drugs. "
John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, who unveiled a massive new advertising campaign addressing prescription drug abuse by teenagers, said that because prescription drugs aren't a street drug, people think they don't have the same risk. The ad campaign, scheduled to begin during the Super Bowl, will speak to parents as well as kids about the dangers of prescription drugs.
Novus’ director Hayes concurs that prescription drugs are treated too lightly compared to traditional street drugs. “Many prescription drugs can quickly create dependencies that are difficult or impossible to deal with on one's own, " he said, “and that would be even more true for inexperienced young people. Medically supervised drug detox is essential to avoid serious complications. "
Prescription drug problems span all sectors of society and most victims arriving for drug detox for prescription drugs are middle class, law-abiding people. “Most people coming to Novus for medical detox look just like your accountant or your lawyer, your doctor or even your mother, brother or father, " Hayes said. “They dress well and are well groomed. They have responsible, well-paying jobs and they love and support their families. These people have no idea how to buy illegal street drugs or where to find them. "
From all the research, press reports and statistics, it's clear that the majority of people with prescription drug problems seeking drug detox are ordinary Americans accidentally caught in the web of dependence. The death of superb actor Heath Ledger, found dead on the floor surrounded by prescription drug containers, is a tragic example of what can happen when drug detox is avoided or ignored when it's needed most - to get the person off the drugs before tragedy strikes.
The real risks of prescription drugs and their prevalence in our homes suggests we should encourage everyone we know, friends or family, to pay closer attention to the effects their prescriptions are having on them, ensure they don't take odd combinations, and seek immediate advice from a medical drug detox program specialist at the first sign of trouble.
Rod MacTaggart is a Florida-based freelance writer who contributes articles on health.