In 2002 Whitney Houston told ABC’s Diane Sawyer about her addiction that “It has been [alcohol, marijuana, pills, cocaine] at times.” It’s a “no-brainer” to find readily available prescription medications in Hollywood (or most anywhere), where friends and associates trade pills like they’re M&M’s. Sadly, it’s cool, and sadly, it’s deadly. Even one little slip-up—mixing meds that don’t mix, or mixing them with alcohol—can be a final, fatal mistake.
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) monitors drug-related hospital emergency departments and drug-related deaths investigated by medical examiners and coroners. It names these two categories as most commonly abused:
- opiates or painkillers: oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone
- benzodiazepines, often called sedatives, hypnotics or tranquilivers: diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and lorazepam (Ativan)
Jagged little pills
Research shows that women, as a group, abuse prescription drugs more than men. But what constitutes abuse? Regular use or just a one-time slip-up?
With some people, it seems “only a matter or time” until something bad—really bad—happens. I remember my friend, “Ann.” She consumed large quantities of alcohol, often mixing different types in one night. She took antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines like Xanax. Ann was clever, traveling between several doctors, using several pharmacies, so no one really knew what or how much she was taking. Her behavior became more and more irrational, and no one could help her—I did try, as did others, to no avail. The problem was too big and too mature.
When the phone rang one night ten years ago, her boss was on the other end. I said, “Is this the call I always knew would come?” “Julie” said, “yes.” She had found Ann sitting up in the bathroom, water running in the sink. Prescription meds were on the counter, two empty wine bottles on the floor.
Half of all Americans are taking one prescription drug and others take many more—including baby boomers whose ailments are mounting up. Additionally, the label on the bottle that says “Do not drink alcohol with this medication” is routinely ignored by patients who think it doesn’t apply to them: It really does.
Dr. David Zich is an ER physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He told NBC News that too much Xanax and too much alcohol aren’t friends. People who abuse them, he says, can “go into such a deep sleep they are in a coma and don’t breathe enough to get oxygen to their brain. If you have excessive amounts and overdose, you can have seizures. Your blood pressure can drop dangerously low.”
The American Pharmacists Association recommends cleaning out your medicine cabinet once yearly. Don’t flush or throw meds away. Mark the calendar for the next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day Saturday, Sept. 27. Make sure your pharmacist has a complete, current list of your medications and supplements.
(Photo courtesy: © Martin Allinger | Dreamstime.com)