Five of the Most Deadly Prescription Drugs

Doctors are supposed to heal, not harm their patients. But sometimes doctors inadvertently cause harm by prescribing drugs, which can have dangerous side effects, be addictive, or even be lethal. This article details five of the most deadly prescription drugs, which outrank the death toll of even the most deadly recreational drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.

While many of the people who die from these prescription medications are prescribed them, other people die from using medications which have been prescribed to other people. While taking these medications, in some cases, makes sense, many people are over-prescribed these medications, or use them inappropriately. They may take them in dangerous combinations with other drugs or alcohol, use dosages which are higher than prescribed, or use dosages which were OK when they were a higher body weight or had greater tolerance.

If you are prescribed one of these medications, it might make sense to explore other options, such as psychological or behavioral approaches to treating anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, or pain. You should be particularly careful about starting to take these medications if you or a family member has ever suffered from an addiction or another mental health problem. However, once you are taking them, you should not stop or take a different dosage without consulting your doctor first.

1
Painkillers

Colored capsule among many white capsules
Which medications are lethal?. Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

Although the number of people who experience pain has not changed, the number of people taking painkillers to deal with their pain has massively increased. In keeping with this increase in painkiller use, the rate of people who have died from overdoses of prescription painkillers, such as Oxycodone (such as OxyContin), Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), and Fentanyl, has increased massively over the past decade. In 2014, over 14,000 Americans died from taking prescription painkillers. Know the ten most addictive pain medications.

2
Methadone

Strictly speaking, methadone is a prescription painkiller, although, in reality, people are usually prescribed methadone to wean them off heroin, or as a heroin substitute. When used to treat heroin addiction, methadone is thought of as the lesser of two evils. Although it is safer than heroin, it is still possible to overdose on methadone. As with other opioids, methadone is most risky when combined with other drugs, when users take different amounts of the drug—taking less, then going back to a previously safe dose is dangerous because tolerance goes down, or after significant weight loss.

3
Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a group of tranquilizer drugs, which have been prescribed for a variety of conditions in particular anxiety and insomnia. These drugs include commonly known medications, such as alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan), as well as clonazepam (Klonopin), oxazepam (Serax), and temazepam (Restoril). Unfortunately for those who take them for more than a very short time, dependence can develop, with a potentially nasty withdrawal syndrome that can be life-threatening. Although the problems with benzodiazepines have been well known for years, prescriptions of these drugs have increased, and deaths from benzodiazepine overdose have increased even more sharply.

4
Stimulants for Attention Deficit Disorder

Many of the 4-9 percent of children and 4 percent of adults with attention deficit disorder take stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, without problems. However, there are two reasons that stimulants are included on this list: first, because they are often prescribed to children; and second, because they are often used as recreational drugs, being "diverted" or sold to people for whom they were not prescribed, or taken in larger quantities than prescribed for pleasure or increasing alertness. They are commonly used by college students for these reasons. Yet there is a risk. In 2010, U.S. poison centers reported 17,000 human exposures to ADHD medications, with 80 percent occurring in children under 19-years-old and 20 percent in adults. And while deaths from overdose can be avoided with appropriate medical care, they can happen, and overdose with ADHD medications can make people very ill, with many cases requiring intensive care medicine and prolonged hospital stays. An association between the use of stimulants and rare sudden unexplained death among children and adolescents has also been found. There are alternative, non-drug treatments for attention deficit disorder, such as neurofeedback, that might be considered.

5
Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic androgenic steroids are, strictly speaking, prescription drugs, although they are typically taken for non-medical reasons, particularly by men who want to increase their muscle mass. Body builders and athletes, who are vulnerable to exercise addiction, are among those most likely to use these drugs. Several studies have indicated dangers associated with the use of steroids. One showed that men who test positive for steroids had twice the rates of cardiovascular disease and death as those with negative tests, and other showed high rates of accidental drug toxicity. There is also an association between elevated aggression and violence in steroid users, and higher rates of violent causes of death, such as homicide and suicide.

Sources:

Darke S, Torok M, Duflou J, Sudden or unnatural deaths involving anabolic-androgenic steroids. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 59(4):1025-8. 2014.

Frati, Paola, Busardgrave;, Francesco P., Cipolloni, Luigi, De Dominicis, Enrico, Fineschi, Vittorio, Anabolic androgenic steroid (AAS) related deaths: Autoptic, histopathological and toxicological findings.Current Neuropharmacology, 13(1):146-159. 2015.

Rudd, Rose A., Aleshire, Noah, Zibbell, Jon E., Gladden, Matthew. Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths; United States, 2000-2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 64:1378-82. 2016.

Spiller, Henry A., Hays, Hannah L., Aleguas, Alfred Jr. Overdose of Drugs for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Clinical Presentation, Mechanisms of Toxicity, and Management. CNS Drugs, 27:531-543. 2013.

Thiblin I; Garmo H; Garle M; Holmberg L; Byberg L; Michsson K; Gedeborg R, Anabolic steroids and cardiovascular risk: A national population-based cohort study. Drug And Alcohol Dependence, 52:87-92. 2015

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