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Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger And 20,000 Americans

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What do they have in common? Accidental prescription drug poisoning.

Yes, Heath Ledger died after mixing pain medicines, anti-anxiety medicines and sedatives. And, while we don’t know the exact cause of Michael Jackson’s death yet (and we may never know), I think it’s a safe bet to say he died of prescription drugs gone wrong.

We hear a lot about the celebrities who die from drug overdoses, either intentional via suicide or by tragic accident like Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger. But, over 20,000 Americans also died from accidental overdose, the CDC said in 2004, the last year they counted this data. These accidents shouldn’t happen.

Unfortunately, accidental overdoses, aka fatal poisonings from prescription drugs, have increased substantially in the U.S. in the last decade. The numbers show women are hit hard. From 1999 to 2004, the death rate due to accidental poisoning doubled in women. Data suggest that this increase in accidental fatal poisonings is related to the increased use of pain medicines like OxyContin, which hit the market in 1996.

But sedatives and tranquilizers are also frequently involved. Taking large doses of these medicines or combining them with alcohol can slow the breathing rate. Overdoses and drug interactions can cause respiratory arrest, essentially a complete cessation of breathing, which then leads to cardiac arrest. The heart stops because no oxygen is reaching it to keep it beating.

The CDC said that accidental overdoses don’t just happen in big cities like Los Angeles or New York, either. The states with the largest increase in accidental fatal poisonings from 1999 to 2004 were West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maine, Montana, and Arkansas.

The risk for incorrect use of prescription drugs is higher than we’d all like to believe. Fortunately, most accidental overdoses aren’t fatal. Recently, the FDA and CDC have been working to track which drugs are involved in overdoses and why. Then, doctors and patients should be able to do more to prevent these occurrences.

If you or a loved one is taking many types of medicines, particularly a narcotic pain medicine and other drugs, make sure to always check doses and potential drug interactions with your doctor.

Add a Comment4 Comments

I didn't think Dr. Zangwill implied either of the people she mentioned where drug addicts. She is simply trying to raise awareness about the issue.

Although doctors should ask what else a patient is taking, no one is perfect. That's why it's important to drive your own health care which is what this site is all about. Pain meds are dangerous and so are sedatives if not carefully watched. I absolutely refuse to take them. I have not been in a situation where I felt I needed them but I have found SOME doctors and dentist all too willing to hand out a prescription for them without asking if I want them.

The best thing to do is find out the source of the pain or the cause of the sleeplessness or anxiety and treat that. If the drugs are needed interim then they should be closely watched.

I have noticed that many of my friends will keep their spare pain meds or muscle relaxers or sleeping pills for future use. They have pain, they pop a pill. I feel that is so dangerous! I have committed to myself not to use any drugs at all unless they become absolutely necessary. The less drugs I have used (including tylenol and advil) the better I have felt.

July 12, 2009 - 11:23am

I read today that between 1998 and 2003 the most common cause of acute liver injury was acetaminophen or paracetamol. In the United States, it's is estimated that almost 400 people die and 42,000 patients are hospitalized due to an overdose of acetaminophen. Yes, that is say, Tylenol which you would find in most homes in the cardboard.

This surprised me and it was a big reminder that we need to read the packaging of medications and make sure we take the recommended dosage. The article I read was from the NYU Medical blog:

July 8, 2009 - 3:35am
EmpowHER Guest

First of all MJ"s autopsy is not finished so you have no business saying that he died from drugs.Only the gossips are saying that.Its not fact. Heath was a friend, and while he did die from accidently combing meds,what you and everyone else fails to remember,is what the autopsy/coroner said.Heath did not take all those pills at the same time.They were taken over a course of several days.Some were time release.They accumulated in his system over time at the prescribed level and some were even under the prescribed level. He also had Pneumonia, which would have made it easier for the meds to depress his breathing. No alcohol,no high doses. Doctors are the real problem, they never ask what else you are taking! There should be a red flag that comes up in the computer,saying that there is a potential lethal combination of meds,when we go to get one filled. Talking about Heath is good,if it is done properly,with all the facts.He was not a drug addict, he was a down to earth man,just trying to cope with health issues and did what he was told, took what he was told. I have on purpose in the last year went to a few docs and asked for all the same meds Heath was on. Know what? I got them all! Not one Doc/pharmacist told me not to mix them, and only one bottle had a warning on it and all it said was "not to mix with like medications" Sure if a celeb or an average person is found dead with massive amounts of these legal meds, then yes they were abusing them,an addict. If they are like Heath, and were not, then someone else is to blame.The Docs and the entire healthcare system needs to change,big time. They are just another type of drug pusher.Also waiting lists for surgeries are way too long,so the patient ends up having to take painkillers for years sometimes, while they wait. How many more Heath's do we have to lose, before something gets done? RIP Heath,my mate,I am sorry.

July 8, 2009 - 1:20am
(reply to Anonymous)

thanks for your comment. I don't think Heath Ledger was an addict. I don't think Michael Jackson was an addict, either. I also totally agree that doctors and the health care system do need to do more to teach about the interactions of drugs and to track what people are taking. I am trying to raise awareness about the seriousness and power of drugs and their interactions, so that more people can be informed patients/consumers, as it sounds like you are.

July 8, 2009 - 5:32am
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