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ER Visits Due to Prescription Drug Abuse Double in Five Years

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Federal data shows that prescription drug abuse now sends twice as many people to the emergency room (ER) as it did five years ago — outstripping illegal drugs for the third year in a row, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reported in a Jan. 6 press release. 

The data come from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which provides estimates on emergency room visits linked to drug use and abuse. DAWN data from 2009 showed almost 4.6 million total visits to emergency rooms that were drug-related, of which 45.1 percent were linked to abuse and misuse of drugs, both legal and illegal.

Nearly a third (27.1 percent) of all visits — or 1.2 million visits — were due to prescription drug abuse, an increase of 98.4 percent from the 627,291 visits recorded in 2004. Illicit drug use accounted for 1.0 million visits to emergency rooms, and alcohol was implicated in 31.8 percent of all visits related to abuse or misuse of drugs.

“Prescription drug abuse is our nation’s fastest-growing drug problem, with shocking consequences measured by overdose deaths, emergency room visits, treatment admissions, and increases in youth drug use,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of ONDCP.

The majority (49.8 percent) of drug-related visits to emergency rooms, or 2.3 million visits, were caused by adverse reactions to legal drugs used as prescribed.  The number of visits caused by adverse reactions increased 82.9 percent between 2005 and 2009, rising from about 1.2 million visits to nearly 2.3 million visits. 

Detailed data from DAWN can be found in “Highlights of the 2009 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits,” published online in The Dawn Report on Dec. 28, 2010 by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

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