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Gary Smith, MD, DrPH

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Numbers Surge In Drug-Related Poisonings

Nearly 2,000 a day are rushed to the hospital, young kids are most vulnerable

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – A new study shows the number of people treated in emergency departments for drug-related poisonings continues to surge in the U.S., and young children are becoming more vulnerable.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, found that in on year alone, nearly 700,000 people were rushed to emergency departments (ED) because of drug poisonings, racking up enormous costs.*

“The numbers are absolutely staggering”, said Gary Smith, MD, DrPh, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.  In all, those 700,000 visits cost $1.4 billion in emergency department costs alone.*  “That’s 1,900 people a day, costing 3.8 million dollars a day in this country.”

The study appears in the latest issue of the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.  It looked only at the numbers for the year 2007, the latest year complete data is availabl e, but indicates the continuation of a troubling trend when it comes to drug poisonings.  “During the past decade in this country, we’ve experienced an epidemic in drug-related poisonings,” said Smith, “but in many ways this one is different.”

“Unlike epidemics in the past involving illegal drugs, such as heroine and crack cocaine, misuse of prescription drugs, especially opioid pain medications, is now the cause of an unprecedented number of emergency department visits and deaths” said Dr. Smith.

Those poisonings are also occurring at a rate three times more often in rural areas than urban*, and young children are becoming especially vulnerable.   “Children 5 years and younger was the age group that had the highest visit rate to the emergency department for unintentional drug poisoning” said Smith, who is also a professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

No one knows that better than Lisa Woodcox, whose 3-year old son Ethan was recently rushed to the hospital.  “He came into the room and said that his mouth was hot.  And my husband and I just thought that it was Valentine’s candy” she said.  Actually, Ethan had climbed a bookshelf to get into his brother’s prescription medicine and had eaten a handful.  Given the explosion in the number of prescriptions being written in this country, scenes like that are becoming more common.
The study found that two types of drugs, antidepressants and analgesics, accounted for the majority of poisonings (43.7%)*.  Between 1997 and 2005, the sale of analgesics, like painkillers containing oxycodone, rose 588%*, and the sale of methadone jumped more than 900%.*  The same time period saw the number of prescriptions for antidepressants double to 30 million a year.**

The more prevalent those drugs are, the more they seem to be involved in drug poisonings, including fatal overdoses.  “The number of deaths due to drug poisoning has increased so rapidly in the United States, that it is now second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of injury-related death.  In fact, in some states, it is the number one cause of injury-related death” said Dr. Smith.

The first and only incident involving her son was one too many for Lisa Woodcox.  Since her son was taken to the hospital for drug poisoning, she’s taken drastic steps to protect her family, and suggests other parents follow her lead.  “We now have a lock box and a key” said Woodcox.  “The key is kept in a separate place from the lock box and all the prescription medications are kept inside the lock box.”

*ED visits for drug-related poisoning in the United States, 2007, American Journal of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 29, No. 4, March 2011.

**National Patterns in Antidepressant Medication Treatment, Archive of General Psychiatry, Volume, 66 Number, 8, August 2009.  Available at:




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