Pharmaceutical abuse sent more than 350,000 people to the ER in 2016

People ages 15–34 made up nearly half of these emergency room visits

emergency room

MISUSE EMERGENCY An estimated 358,000 trips to the emergency department in 2016 resulted from the misuse of pharmaceuticals, and 41 percent of those people were admitted to the hospital.


The misuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications resulted in an estimated 358,000 trips to U.S. emergency departments in 2016 — and almost half of those cases involved young people ages 15 to 34, according to a new study based on a national public health surveillance system.  

The analysis, reported online March 6 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was based on data reported by a nationally representative sample of 56 hospitals from January 1 to December 31, 2016.

Overall, two pharmaceuticals played a part in most of the cases, either alone or with other substances. Nearly 47 percent of ER visits involved misuse of benzodiazepines (SN: 2/16/19, p. 12), while prescription opioids (SN: 9/2/17, p. 5) were implicated in 36 percent.

Close to a quarter of the total estimated ER visits were cases in which patients were unresponsive, had stopped breathing or had suffered cardiac arrest, signs of a severe overdose, researchers report. And nearly 53 percent of the total cases also involved at least one other substance, such as alcohol or illicit drugs like cocaine.

“These data suggest the issue is one not merely of a single medication, but multiple substances being involved,” says coauthor Andrew Geller, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They highlight an opportunity for clinicians to screen for and address polysubstance use.”

The survey also showed that people in different age groups had a predilection for different substances. Those younger than 34 were more likely to misuse antihistamines or stimulants, while those ages 35 to 64 were more likely to have abused prescription opioids or muscle relaxants.

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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