Celebrity deaths bring attention to the dangers of misusing prescription drugs

The death of pop superstar Whitney Houston last weekend and the overdose deaths of other celebrities like Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger have put renewed focus on the nation’s and Ohio’s troubling prescription drug abuse problem.

In Ohio, the spotlight in particular has been placed on opiate addiction and overdose, and communities, counties and the state are stepping up efforts with prevention and rehabilitation.

Montgomery County has an unusually high accidental prescription drug overdose death rate of 23 per 100,000 people, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health, which is twice that of other urban Ohio counties.

“Although there is a lot of concern about prescription drug overdose in the residents of Montgomery County, it is a statewide and national concern,” emphasizes Russel Falck, associate director of the Center for Interventions, Treatment and Addictions Research (CITAR) at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine.

While Houston’s cause of death is listed on her death certificate as “deferred’’ while authorities await toxicology test results, officials say prescription drugs – including Xanax, Ativan and Valium, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders – and alcohol were found in the singer’s Beverly Hills hotel room.

The combination of prescription drugs and alcohol, according to area health experts, can make a potentially deadly cocktail.

Anti-anxiety medications, which belong to the benzodiazapine family, according to Narconon International, were linked to the deaths of Winehouse, Jackson and Ledger.

Simply put, benzodiazapines, as well as opiates (think of such potent painkillers as OxyContin and Vicodin), and alcohol are all central nervous system depressants. When any of these – alone or in various combinations – are consumed in excessive amounts, officials say, the respiratory system can shut down and death can occur.

The brain essentially falls asleep.

Other factors also enter the accidental prescription drug overdose scenario, including drug tolerance and length of use, body composition, weight and metabolic rate.

Like alcohol, narcotic painkillers and “benzos,” as they are often called, can be addictive.

When you are under the influence of alcohol or other pyschoactive drugs, your memory and your reasoning ability may, in fact, be diminished, according to Orman Hall, director of the Ohio Dept. of Alcohol & Drug Addiction Services in Columbus. “Consequently, you may not remember what you took. Your judgment is impaired.”

“You can get into trouble quite quickly,” adds Falck. “You are playing with a lethal cocktail.”

As Hall points out: “Oxycodone is virtually identical to heroin.”

Also alarming is the fact Americans account for 4.5 percent of the world’s population, he says, “but we consume 99 percent of all the hydrocodone. ... And we consume 81 percent of all of the oxycodone, which is OxyContin.”

In the late 1990s, according to Hall, there were fundamental changes in chronic pain guidelines that resulted in a rapid and dramatic escalation of prescription opiates.

Dr. Douglas Teller, internal medicine and addiction medicine specialist for Kettering Health Network, adds today’s fast-paced society–in which deadlines loom and the pressure to succeed is great — has, in part, made Americans accustomed to quick fixes for pain management.

A migraine sufferer, for instance, might immediately pop a pill when symptoms appear rather than first going to a quiet room and practicing relaxation techniques.

Hitting home

And it’s not just patients who can be the victims of accidental prescription drug overdose.

The experts warn children can get hold of their parents’ unused sedative or painkiller prescriptions and abuse them — or accidentally poison themselves.

All it takes is a naive teenager to drink alcohol, says Teller, and then pop Xanax and Vicodin to turn careless drug experimentation into respiratory arrest and death.

What can parents do?

Eric Wandersleben, communications manager for the Ohio Department of Alcohol & Drug Addiction Services, has this mantra: Educate. Communicate. Safeguard.

“Talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs. Whitney Houston’s untimely death provides the perfect opportunity for parents or caregivers to sit down with their children and have that conversation,” says Wandersleben. “They need to know the facts, the risks and the consequences.”

He also presses for proper disposal of unused prescription medications to make sure they don’t get into the wrong hands.

Drop-off sites are located throughout the state, he adds, and many communities host take-back days during which residents can get rid of their old medications.

And, lastly, Falck reminds us: Read the labels on prescription drugs, adding central nervous system depressants usually have warning labels that say “don’t use with alcohol” and “don’t operate machinery while taking this medicine.”