Not only are prescription narcotics more widely available than ever before, some also stay in the body longer. High-dose, extended-release pills are convenient for patients seeking uninterrupted relief from severe pain throughout the night, for example, but they also make overdose more likely if taken incorrectly. Some recreational abusers pulverize long-acting 60-milligram pills of oxycodone to snort or smoke it, thereby sending a potentially toxic quantity into the bloodstream all at once.
Well-meaning pain patients run afoul of the pills, too. “I get patients who tell me, ‘I ran out of my medicine, so my neighbor gave me some of his,’” Horowitz says. “But it turned out the neighbor was taking a much higher dose.”
The greater availability of prescription drugs also makes it dangerously easy to mix medications. In the JAMA overdose study, nearly 80 percent of those who died were on a medley of drugs that usually included benzodiazepines (commonly prescribed for anxiety or insomnia) and had sometimes imbibed alcohol as well. That pattern of mixing often bespeaks an underlying addiction, the researchers say. In high-enough doses, each of those drugs can slow breathing, and the combination is particularly dangerous, says Jane Prosser, an emergency medicine physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. “This is one of those cases where one plus one equals four.”
An overdose in an older patient, who is more likely to be undergoing treatment for multiple chronic conditions, can be especially tough to diagnose in the emergency room, Prosser says. “A confused elderly person comes to the ER and says, ‘I feel very weak and dizzy.’ Is that their cancer? The chemo? The pain meds? The fact that they're dehydrated because they've been vomiting and have diarrhea? It can be very hard to tell.”
When Lab Tests Go Wrong
Although advanced analytical techniques can selectively identify any drug, they are too expensive and slow to be useful in a medical emergency, says Mark B. Mycyk, a medical toxicologist at John H. Stroger, Jr., Hospital of Cook County in Chicago. And the standard panels of quicker screening tests for drugs in blood and urine have not kept up with shifts in the types of drugs people abuse.
“Those core [toxicology] screens were developed for the war on drugs in the workplace in the mid-1970s and are designed mostly to pick up heroin, cocaine and marijuana use,” Mycyk says. The tests will not detect the increasing number of barely legal or illegal recreational drugs such as 2C-E that come in many slightly rejiggered versions because of creative chemists looking to make a buck. Even many legitimate medicines, including the antianxiety pills Ativan and Xanax and the painkillers methadone and oxycodone, do not show up on the standard hospital drug-screening tests. Relying on lab results, Prosser says, can, in this case, foil diagnosis and misguide treatment.
Say a man addicted to methadone comes into the emergency room unconscious after also taking a hefty dose of Xanax. The doctor, trying to figure out why the patient is unconscious, screens his urine for sedating narcotics. The results come back negative because the screen will pick up neither methadone nor Xanax. Misled by the test results, the doctor does not prescribe a medicine that would blunt symptoms of withdrawal as the narcotic wears off—and that decision has fatal consequences. “Suddenly [the patient] starts vomiting from opiate withdrawal but doesn't wake up, because he has OD'd on benzodiazepines,” Prosser says. Inhaling that vomit could kill him.
Improved testing is not necessarily the answer, Mycyk says. When time is critical, taking note of a telltale constellation of symptoms typically triggered by a certain class of drugs—and treating those symptoms—makes more sense than waiting for chemical confirmation.