News Release

March 4, 2008

Contact: Carolyn Pennington, 860-679-4864

Mixing Meds Can Be Deadly

Poison Prevention Week March 16 - 22

FARMINGTON, CONN. – Mixing medications can be dangerous - even deadly - a fact highlighted by the recent death of actor Heath Ledger from a combination of prescription painkillers and sedatives. Accidental drug interactions have risen 68 percent since 1999, making the problem now the second-leading cause of accidental death in the United States, after automobile accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts at the Connecticut Poison Control Center (CPCC) at the University of Connecticut Health Center advise patients to consult their doctors and pharmacists before taking new medications with other prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs or with supplements like vitamins and herbal remedies. “Many of the products available OTC today were once prescription [medications] just a few years ago, so don't underestimate their strength,” says Bernard Sangalli, director of the CPCC. Natural does not mean safe.

Patients are often unaware of the potential for serious drug interactions between their prescription medications in combination or with OTC products. Although it may be unclear whether a death by prescription drugs was intentional or not, “often, medical examiners find multiple prescription and/or OTC drugs in victims that died of drug overdoses,” says Sangalli.

“Another one of our concerns is the abuse of prescription drugs -- using a medication for nonmedical reasons,” adds Amy Hanoian-Fontana, a CPCC educator. “There’s been a dramatic increase in the U.S. across all age groups.” In 2006, more than 16 million Americans aged 12 or over reported nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants or sedatives, up from 14 million in 2004, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The most commonly abused groups are strong painkillers, stimulant medications and sedatives for sleep or anxiety. “That’s why it is important for parents to put ‘pharming’ – the use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs for recreational use – on their radar screens,” says Hanoian-Fontana.

Even if people take medications in prescribed amounts, cumulative effects can be problematic, because drugs may build up in the body after a certain period of time. Another problem is that one drug may interfere with the breakdown of another by the liver, in effect keeping the drugs in the body for longer, which could cause toxicity. "For drugs in general, any combination you might take, there is always the potential for an interaction that might cause the drugs to work differently than if they were taken alone," says Hanoian-Fontana.

National Poison Prevention Week, the third week in March each year, is designated to highlight the dangers of poisonings and how to prevent them. More than 2 million poisonings are reported each year to the 61 Poison Control Centers (PCCs) across the country. If you think someone has been poisoned from a medicine or household chemical, call 1-800-222-1222 for your Poison Control Center. This national toll-free number works from anyplace in the U.S. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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