Prescription drugs are top cause of accidental deaths

Prescription drugs now cause more accidental deaths in the United States than car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Health officials say vehicles are getting safer and more people are using seat belts, so the number of people dying in car accidents is dropping, while deaths from prescription drug use keep going up.

John Coffin, executive director of Shoreline Behavioral Health Services in Conway, said that's due in part to the increasing abuse of opiate pain killers, like Oxycontin and Percocet. But Coffin says that's not the biggest problem.

"The last statistics I saw, about 15,000 deaths come from NSAIDS in a year, which is significantly more than the opiate deaths," Coffin said.

NSAIDS are non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, including pain relievers like Ibuprofen and Tylenol.

Coffin said those drugs are processed through the liver and kidneys and an overdose can damage those organs. He said a federal drug panel recently recommended reducing the maximum dose of Tylenol allowed, from 500 milligrams to 325.

"Because the extra strength Tylenol was killing some people because they were unknowingly mixing it with other medications that also contain Tylenol and Tylenol has a very high risk of liver toxicity," he said.

Coffin said he doesn't want to minimize the danger of opiates, but if taken as prescribed, they can be wonder drugs for people with chronic pain or cancer. He said a bigger problem is people who don't follow directions when using drugs they think are safe.

"The key thing is listening to the doctor and taking the medication as prescribed and reporting any unusual symptoms and side effects immediately."

In 2009, nearly 38,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, about 4,000 more than from traffic accidents.