Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jan 2013
Source: Greensboro News & Record (NC)
Copyright: 2013 Greensboro News & Record, Inc.
Author: Natalie Rich
Note: Natalie Rich is a health educator at UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Health.


Only hard-core drug addicts overdose, right?

Actually, this statement may be one of the most dangerous
misconceptions driving the overdose epidemic in our country. In the
United States, accidental overdose, which includes alcohol, illegal
drugs and prescription drugs, has now overtaken motor vehicle crashes
as the No. 1 cause of injury death (i.e., non-disease-related death,
like falling or homicide).

Opioid pain relievers, like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, currently
account for more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.
Prescribed for acute or chronic pain, these drugs provide relief for
thousands of people. But, as with any drug, they carry the potential
for abuse and overdose. In order to fight this growing epidemic, we
must challenge misconceptions about overdose victims.

As a health educator at UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Health, I have worked
with college students who have experienced accidental overdose due to
a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Many are smart,
studious high achievers. Often they are taking prescription medicines
as prescribed, unaware of the toxic effects of mixing their drugs with
alcohol. They wake up in the hospital shocked and confused. "How could
I have been so near death from just one pill?" one student asked me
after taking a prescribed opioid and drinking a few beers.

But accidental overdose is not limited to young people. In fact, the
mean age of overdose victims is 39, suggesting that older adults are
overdosing just as much as younger populations. I experienced this
firsthand when I worked on a research project investigating falls in
older adults. I encountered seniors who had accidentally taken too
much of their medicines and ended up in the hospital from an overdose.
Many were reluctant to talk about their experience out of shame or
embarrassment, not realizing that many drug overdoses happen in this

Another group at higher risk for overdose is veterans. Soldiers suffer
disproportionately from chronic pain, PTSD and mental illness, and the
medicines prescribed for these illnesses place them at higher risk for
an overdose. Opioid pain reliever prescriptions among soldiers have
increased from 30,000 to 50,000 since the Iraq war began, so it is no
wonder our troops suffer four times more overdose deaths than their
civilian counterparts.

So what can be done? Opioid pain relievers contribute
disproportionately to the problem, and yet there is a drug called
naloxone that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Because
of naloxone's prescription drug status, it must be administered by a
doctor or self-administered. Expanding the law to allow bystanders to
administer the drug will encourage doctors to prescribe it more often
and allow overdose bystanders (i.e., family and friends) to administer
it without fear of criminal or civil charges (it is illegal to
administer a prescription drug to someone if you are not a licensed
medical professional).

Another way to reduce overdose deaths is through a 911 Good Samaritan
Law, which would grant amnesty from any drug-or alcohol-related
charges to a person calling 911 on behalf of an overdose victim. For
the UNC students I work with, this could be a lifesaver, since so many
of them avoid calling 911 for fear of getting into trouble.

These two efforts are part of an overdose prevention bill in the N.C.
General Assembly. These issues will be discussed in greater depth Feb.
5 at a policy summit in Raleigh. The summit is open to the public, and
it will provide a forum for anyone interested in learning more about
these issues or showing their support for overdose prevention. Drug
overdose is not simply about addicts using illegal drugs (although
this is an important population to consider). The prevalence of
prescription drug use means that we must redefine what an overdose
victim looks like: They are our children, our grandparents, and the
soldiers who risk their lives for our country.

Natalie Rich is a health educator at UNC-Chapel Hill Campus


What: Overdose Prevention Policy Summit

When: Feb. 5

Where: N.C. General Assembly, 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh
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