*Speculation surrounding the cause of superstar Whitney Houston’s death highlights what many addiction experts have seen for many years — prescription drug overdoses can happen when people fail to realize just how deadly combining various medications can be. Especially when these combinations involve alcohol, opiates, and/or sedatives.
• One person dies from a drug overdose every 19 minutes in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• The U.S. death rate from drug overdosing has more than tripled in the past decade, making prescription drug abuse the nation’s fastest growing drug problem.
• High-profile celebrity deaths are just one indication, albeit a dramatic one, of this growing problem.
• The most commonly abused prescription drugs include opiate painkillers (e.g., Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin) and sedative antianxiety medications (e.g., Valium, Xanax, and Ativan). Most drug overdoses involve some combination of these medications, and often include alcohol.
• All opiates and sedatives slow breathing. But when taken together these drugs can do so to the point completely stopping respiration– resulting in fatal overdose.
• The risk of overdose death is dramatically increased when prescription painkillers (such as Vicodin, Percocet, or OxyContin) or sedative drugs (such as Valium, Xanax, or Ambien) are combined with alcohol.
• As the prevalence of prescription painkillers has increased in recent years, so have the number of people hospitalized for overdosing on them. Overdose deaths are highest in states where doctors write more prescriptions for these medications.
• Since 2003, more drug overdose deaths have involved prescription opioids than heroin and cocaine combined.
• It is estimated that there are enough prescription painkillers prescribed in the United States every year to medicate every American adult 24 hours a day for a month.
• The addictive nature of opioids is nothing new; however, there has been an alarming increase in the number of people misusing and becoming addicted to these prescription analgesics.
• People with a history of chronic relapsing addiction are at increased risk of overdose death.
• The risk of overdose in people with addiction histories can increase dramatically when they relapse after a period of abstinence that lowers their body’s tolerance and makes them more prone to overdose reactions.
• Treatment for addiction must focus not only on stopping alcohol/drug use, but more importantly on staying stopped over the long term.
Arnold M. Washton, Ph.D., a widely known addiction psychologist and book author, has specialized in treating alcohol and drug abuse for the past 35 years. His private practice (Recovery Options) in New York City and Princeton, NJ has included numerous high-profile, high-functioning clients including executives, professionals, entertainers, and athletes.
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