Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is strengthening its warnings about the potential dangers of mixing prescription painkillers and sedatives, some physicians persist in prescribing the sometimes lethal combination.
In an announcement at the end of August, the FDA issued a warning that it is requiring “changes to drug labeling, including patient information, to help inform health care providers and patients of the serious risks associated with the combined use of certain opioid medications and a class of central nervous system depressant drugs called benzodiazepines.”
The FDA will add a boxed warning — the strongest type — to nearly 400 medications about the potentially fatal interactions, including opioid painkillers, opioid-containing cough medicines, and benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety, insomnia and seizure disorders. While current drug labels and medical guidelines already caution against mixing the drugs, doctors still routinely prescribe them in combination.
Painkillers and sedatives are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. Both types of drugs slow a user's heart rate and breathing. They can cause extreme sleepiness, coma, and death.
The FDA's goal is to reverse the “epidemic” abuse of the prescription drugs while still providing patients with effective pain management.
“It is nothing short of a public health crisis when you see a substantial increase of avoidable overdose and death related to two widely used drug classes being taken together,” an FDA official said. “We implore health care professionals to heed these new warnings and more carefully and thoroughly evaluate, on a patient-by-patient basis, whether the benefits of using opioids and … central nervous system depressants more generally – together outweigh these serious risks.”
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and drug warning labels already caution doctors about prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines together to avoid potential serious health outcomes.
The number of opioid patients who were also prescribed sedatives increased by 41 percent, or roughly 2.5 million patients, between 2002 and 2014. Overdose deaths linked to the non-medical use of the drug combination tripled between 2004 and 2011.
According to the CDC, 78 Americans a day die from an opioid overdose. In 2014, more than 17,000 people died from overdoses linked to opioid pain medications, including drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl.
Several years ago, the CDC already was warning the public and medical professionals about a significant increase in the number of prescription drug overdose deaths, particularly caused by opioids and drugs often prescribed for mental health conditions, such as Benzodiazepines which “were involved in a significant number of pharmaceutical overdose deaths.” Benzodiazepines include Klonopin, Ativan, Valium, and Xanax.
The guidelines, however, are voluntary for doctors and some experts think this alone will not help significantly decrease the number of deaths from overdose.
“We probably need to see these guidelines as part of a larger picture of interventions that are being done by the government, professional associations, by individual practitioners, to decrease opiate misuse, and opiate overdose deaths,” said one expert from Johns Hopkins Medicine.
According to a report released earlier this summer by Johns Hopkins, medical error is the third leading cause of patient deaths each year.
If you were prescribed a harmful cocktail of medications or if a loved one has died from an overdose of prescription medication, you may be entitled to compensation for the doctor's wrongful act. Call the offices of trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian at 800-529-6162 or contact them online. The firm handles cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.