New Years is just around the corner which means it’s time to booze it up and hopefully not drive home. For many many years, humans have desired, searched for and used compounds that alter their sensorium….to help them unwind, relax, forget their troubles and take the edge off of or a temporary break from, harsh reality. The use of psychoactive chemicals like alcohol and other drugs to party is as prevalent as ever. Since upcoming New Year’s Eve is arguably the biggest party of the year, read on before you partake in any party poisons.
Alcohol (chemical name ethanol) is probably the most commonly used drug in the world. Ethanol falls into the general drug/chemical category of depressants along with other popular drugs like marijuana, heroin and prescription medications such as opioids (Vicodin®, Norco®, methadone, morphine, oxycodone) and benzodiazepines (Valium®, Xanax®). In low to moderate doses, depressants cause the pleasant ‘buzz’ of relaxation, lowered inhibitions, and giddiness. The larger the amount consumed, the bigger the slow-down, which can lead to impaired reflexes, disorientation, coma and even a decrease or halt in breathing. With effects like these, it is easy to see how someone can get into trouble with them and why they can be poisons in every sense of the word. After all, the dictionary definition of poison is a substance that causes injury, illness or death by chemical means.
Did you know that poisoning is the second leading cause of injury related death according to the CDC? Deaths from poisoning exceed deaths from firearms. The substance associated with the most deaths is prescription drugs, and the class of drugs with the most deaths is opioid medications. Medications, what many people might call an antonym of poison–are killing people. There were 27,531 unintentional poisoning deaths in 2006 (the last year that data is available). This does not include suicide ODs or homicide; this number represents only those who had no intention of causing death. Many are due to the use of psychoactive prescription drugs to have fun, without the supervision of a doctor. With well over 200 million prescriptions written every year for opioids alone, most anyone can get their hands on some easily and for free by simply taking them out of the household medicine cabinet of a family member or friend. Medications are powerful chemicals and taking extra, mixing pills with other pills, mixing pills with alcohol, etc, can have horrible consequences. Part of the problem is the false sense of safety people have with prescription drugs because they are legal, they’re ‘medicine’, and they are given out by doctors and pharmacists.
Even if you never touch an aspirin let alone any other pill, alcoholic beverages factor in to toxin-related deaths too. Technically poisoning is the number two cause of injury related death with the number one cause being motor vehicle collisions (MVCs, 43,664 deaths in 2006). But what about all the MVC deaths that are due to a driver intoxicated or inebriated on some mind altering substance? 50% of MVCs directly involve a psychoactive chemical: about one third of all MVCs involve alcohol and another 18% involve other intoxicating drugs like cocaine or marijuana. Now, I’m a good driver (some of my close relations may beg to differ but I have never gotten a speeding ticket or caused an accident in my life). If I get wasted and then drive my car into a brick wall and kill myself, technically I have died of a MVC. However it stands to good reason that if I didn’t have alcohol/oxycodone/weed/pick your poison on board, I would not have crashed or died. So if we add the poison-related MVC numbers to the official poison death numbers for 2006 (27,531 + 21,832), then we get nearly 50,000 deaths, making poisoning the leading cause of injury related death in this country.
So as you prepare to party hearty this New Years, remember that alcohol and medications are drugs that can very quickly become poisons in the wrong amount, combination, or motorized vehicle. Respect the effects they can have on you.
If you have any questions on alcohol or prescription drugs and their effects, you can call the experts at IPC (a nurse, pharmacist or doc will take your call). It’s free and completely confidential; you don’t have to tell us your name. 1-800-222-1222, save it in your cell phone and some day it could save you back.
Happy New Year from the IPC Poison Geeks!