Most overdose deaths involve prescribed drugs

Latest figures from Health Research Board
  • Deborah Condon

Some 376 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, with at least two-thirds of these deaths involving prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, the latest figures from the Health Research Board (HRB) have shown.

According to the figures, prescribed drugs were implicated in 253 overdose deaths in 2017. The most common prescription drugs implicated were benzodiazepines (139 overdose deaths).

These are sedatives that are often prescribed to encourage sleep or reduce stress and anxiety. However, they are also sometimes used to ease the comedown from stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and ecstasy.

Methadone, an opiate substitute, was implicated in 95 overdose deaths, while heroin was implicated in 77.

Meanwhile, the number of overdose deaths related to cocaine rose from 42 in 2016 to 53 in 2017.

The HRB warned that polydrug use, i.e. mixing drugs, "significantly increases the risk for fatal overdose". It noted that in 2017, there were 218 deaths as a result of mixing drugs, with an average of four different drugs taken.

For example, all benzodiazepine-related overdose deaths also involved other drugs, mainly opioids.

"More than one person died from overdose each day in 2017. They would typically have been male, aged in their 30's or 40's, and taking a mixture of drugs, many of which are legal, such as methadone, alcohol, or benzodiazepines.

"A cocktail of drugs was present in three in five overdose deaths. Mixing drugs is known to cause more complications and increases the risk of overdose as is evident in this HRB data," commented HRB research officer, Ena Lynn.

The figures also looked at non-poisoning deaths among drugs users. These are deaths as a result of trauma, such as hanging, or medical reasons, such as cardiac events, among people who use drugs, whether or not the use of the drug had a direct impact on the cause of death.

Altogether in 2017, there were 410 non-overdose deaths among drug users - 196 due to trauma and 214 due to medical causes.

The main cause of trauma deaths was hanging, with the figures increasing from 98 in 2016 to 114 in 2017.

While the majority of hanging deaths involved men, the number of women who died by hanging rose from 16 in 2016 to 25 in 2017.

Some 63% of people who died as a result of hanging had a history of mental health problems. Cannabis followed by cocaine were the most common drugs used by those who died in this way.

Meanwhile, the main cause of medical deaths among drugs users in 2017 was cardiac events (56 deaths).

Data for these figures is collected from a number of sources, including coroners' files and the Central Statistics Offices. The HRB warned that these figures are likely to be revised upwards when new data becomes available from closed inquest files.

These latest HRB figures can be viewed here.


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