Prescription drugs can be dangerous to your health, and many are seriously addictive and can even kill you. But a recent Florida study of drug-related deaths in Florida reveals that far more people suddenly fall victim to lethal drug combinations — called polydrug abuse — than to individual drugs, and it can happen to recreational users as well as those trapped by prescription drug addiction.
It’s common knowledge that prescription drug addiction has become a national nightmare. But sudden death from prescription drugs is the topic of news stories every day. The Florida study, an analysis of 168,900 deaths statewide in 2007 by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, found that deaths from prescription drugs were three times the rate of deaths caused by traditional illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
For example, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine caused 989 deaths, whereas legal painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin caused 2,328, the report states. And benzodiazepines, including antidepressants like Valium and Xanax, led to 743 deaths. Although the number of people who died with heroin in their bodies increased 14 percent to 110, deaths from the opioid painkiller oxycodone increased 36 percent to 1,253 — more than 10 times as many as heroin.
Oxycodone is the heroin-like ingredient in the highly publicized and much-abused painkiller OxyContin, responsible for literally thousands of cases of prescription drug addiction, injury and death across the country. Obviously, heroin and oxycodone are interchangeable, and addicts are happy to get their hands on either drug.
But digging a little deeper into the statistics, we begin to see how polydrug dangers eclipse individual deaths. The report shows oxycodone implicated in 664 deaths in combination with other drugs, and only 41 by itself. The similar drug hydrocodone, available as Vicodin, Lortab, a ton of other brands, and generically, claimed 251 deaths in combination, and only 13 alone. Propoxyphene, well-known as Darvon, was connected to 76 deaths in combination with other substances, and only nine by itself.
Don’t forget that opioid painkillers, all on their own, are responsible for hundreds of times as many cases of prescription drug addiction than deaths, and every prescription drug addiction is a potential funeral just waiting to happen.
Now come the psych drugs — antidepressants, antipsychotics, tranquilizers and on and on, every bit as dangerous in their own lethal way as the opioids.
Diazepam, widely prescribed as Valium, was implicated in 171 deaths when combined with other drugs, and only three by itself. And alprazolam, best known by the trade name Xanax, was linked to 556 deaths in combination with other substances, and just six deaths alone.
This in no way minimizes the risk of prescription drug addiction caused by any single psych drug on its own, either. Every one of them, all on its own, can cause dependency or a prescription drug addiction, terrible side effects, withdrawal leading to injury, and even death.
But 10 times as many deaths from prescription drugs in combination with other drugs shows that polydrug abuse is a new and very serious problem. For those still alive and seeking recovery, a combination of prescription drug addiction and polydrug abuse is a complex problem for medical drug detox centers to deal with — more difficult to solve than a single prescription drug addiction. But thank goodness, when done properly, safe solutions are possible.
In the final analysis, the Florida report clearly illustrates how polydrug abuse can very quickly and unexpectedly end a life, before the victim has a chance to handle their dependency or addiction through a competent medical drug detox program.