According to the North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention branch of the North Carolina Division of Public Health, unintentional poisoning deaths in the state have risen 300 percent since 1999.
From 1999 to 2012, a recorded 1,382 poisoning deaths have been reported. Of those 1,382, a staggering 1,101 were unintentional. Ninety-one percent of the unintentional poisonings were due to medications and illicit drugs. The greatest culprit: commonly prescribed painkillers.
Lincoln County is no exception to this alarming trend. In analyzing statistics from Lincoln County EMS, paramedics responded to 14 overdose calls so far in 2014 for patients between the ages of 13 and 21. Teens are gaining access to the medicine cabinets of people with prescriptions at an alarming rate. Similar age groups in 2009 were responsible for 11 overdose calls. In 2010, EMS responded to 26. The years 2011 and 2012 saw 27 patients, respectively, and 2013 only had a decline of four patients, leaving the total at 23.
Signs of opioid overdose include pinpoint pupils, an altered level of consciousness, shallow breathing and the inability to control one’s own body. In severe overdose cases, respiratory arrest can cause everything from coma to death.
While many people that are prescribed medications like hydrocodone for chronic pain management and stronger medications like Percocet after surgical procedures, more and more people are attending pain clinics and engaging in what is referred to in the medical profession as “doctor hopping,” switching from physician to physician in order to procure prescriptions for pain medications.
This trend was combated by the DEA by instituting a watch list, containing both doctors and patients. The DEA has not stopped there, however, and recently made a ruling to reschedule commonly prescribed medications like Vicodin and Lortab.
Effective Oct. 6, all medications containing hydrocodone will move from a schedule III narcotic to a schedule II, meaning physicians will no longer be able to simply call in a prescription for patients, or issue multiple refills on one prescription. The ruling was published on Aug. 21, following the recommendation of the reschedule from the Assistant Secretary for Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the press release issued by the DEA, the main reason for the reschedule is the alarming rise in abuse.
“Almost seven million Americans abuse controlled substance prescription medications, including opioid painkillers, resulting in more deaths from prescription drug overdoses than auto accidents,” DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart said. “Today’s action recognizes that these products are some of the most addictive and potentially dangerous prescription medications available.”
While the DEA feels that this effort will help combat abuse, a growing number of pharmacists, physicians and patients with chronic and sometimes fatal diseases are wary about the decision, feeling that medications that help them function on a daily basis will now cause them to be scrutinized.
With commonly used opioids being reclassified, and thus making them harder to come by, an even more alarming trend has been seen in the county. According to Lt. Jason Reid, lead Narcotics investigator for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, there has been a rise in heroin trafficking and usage in the county. An emergency room nurse from a neighboring county that wished to remain anonymous confirmed that they are seeing more and more patients that have overdosed on heroin.
The Center for Disease Control and the DEA, as well as various law enforcement agencies, believe that combatting the abuse epidemic starts at home with something as simple as locking away medications so others cannot have access to them. It is also encouraged that anyone that may have an abuse problem or know someone with an abuse problem seeks medical help.