The number of deaths and hospitalisations caused by powerful prescription painkillers, sedatives and tranquilisers have more than doubled in the past decade in the U.S., according to a new study.

The number of hospitalisations due to poisoning by prescription drugs have increased from approximately 43,000 to about 71,000 in the country between 1999 and 2006, said the report published today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Lead author Jeffrey H. Coben, MD of the West Virginia University School of Medicine, said: “Deaths and hospitalisations associated with prescription drug misuse have reached epidemic proportions.”

“It is essential that health care providers, pharmacists, insurance providers, state and federal agencies, and the general public all work together to address this crisis.

“Prescription medications are just as powerful and dangerous as other notorious street drugs, and we need to ensure people are aware of these dangers and that treatment services are available for those with substance abuse problems.”

For their study, the researchers examined data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample (NIS) - which contains records for approximately eight million hospitalisations per year - and found out all cases poisoning by drugs, medicinal, and biological substances reported from 1999-2006,

By further categorising specific types of drugs in each case, the researchers also determined whether the poisoning was diagnosed as intentional, unintentional or undetermined.

They found that during the period of the study, poisoning by prescription opioids, sedatives, and tranquilisers increased by 65 per cent, while accidental or unintentional poisonings by these drugs increased by 37 per cent.

Similarly, hospitalisations for poisoning by other drugs, medicinal and biological substances increased by 33 per cent, while all other hospitalisations increased by just over 11 per cent.

But the biggest finding was that intentional poisonings from prescription drugs rose by 130 per cent compared to a 53 per cent increase in intentional poisonings from other substances.

The largest percentage increase in hospitalisations for poisoning for a specific drug was observed for methadone (400 per cent). Poisonings by benzodiazepines increased 39 per cent, while hospitalisations for poisoning by barbiturates decreased 41 per cent.

Dr. Coben believes that while the data reveals a fast-growing problem, there’s an urgent need for more in-depth research on this wave of injuries and deaths.

“The association between hospitalisation for prescription opioids, sedatives, and tranquilisers and subsequent morbidity and mortality is another area in need of further research,” he added.

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