Most Fatal Poisonings Linked to Prescription Drugs

December 19, 2014
Meghan Ross, Associate Editor

The majority of fatal poisonings in 2012 resulted from prescription drug use.

The majority of fatal poisonings in 2012 resulted from prescription drug use, according to a new study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine that cited data from the National Poison Data System (NPDS).

Of the 2937 human poison exposures with a fatal outcome that year, 83% involved a pharmaceutical product, according to NPDS data. While opioid analgesics resulted in the most fatal poisonings, the street drug heroin topped the list of drugs that caused death, at 325 cases.

Methadone was the leading pharmaceutical ingredient, causing 178 fatalities. Many of the methadone-related deaths involved the tablet form of the drug, as opposed to the liquid or diskette formulations, according to the study. Oxycodone, hydrocodone, acetaminophen, and morphine were the next leading causes of fatal poisoning.

Prescription opioid exposures involving children, which totaled 2591 in 2002, more than doubled in a 10-year span, numbering 5541 cases in 2012. Child deaths involving prescription analgesics increased from 1 to 7 annually in that same time period, the study reported. Methadone also led to the most pediatric deaths.

The year 2012 also saw a growing problem in children consuming laundry detergent pods. Although there were no reported fatalities, reactions included vomiting, drowsiness, and foamy oral secretions, according to the study.

Bath salts and synthetic marijuana were also identified by the National Poison Control Center (NPCC) as new threats to public health in 2012.

While most individuals who report a human poison exposure to NPCC are able to handle the matter without requiring a trip to a health care facility, the number of those who do require treatment in an emergency room (ER) is growing.

According to the study, 526,000 individuals required treatment from a health care facility in 2003, and that number increased to 613,412 in 2012. To break that down, 11.6% of children aged under 5 years, 14% of children ages 6 to 12, 51.2% of teenagers, and 37.9% of adults were treated in a health care facility for poisonings in 2012, according to the data.

“Poisoning continues to be a significant cause of injury and death in the United States,” said lead study author Richard Dart, MD, PhD, of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, Colorado, in a press release. “The near real-time responsiveness of NPDS helps emergency physicians respond to new poisoning threats, while also assisting patients who call for help to know when they need the ER and when they can manage things safely at home.”