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Unintentional Overdoses


More and more Americans are turning to prescription and over-the-counter medications for pain relief. These medications are easily accessible. They can make recovery from surgery less painful as well as ease many ailments from a chronic sore back to a cough and cold. 

However, overdoses of prescription medicine are on the rise.  Most fatal unintentional overdoses result from pain relief medications also known as opioid analgesics. Opioids include: oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and buprenorphine. Mixing prescription pain medication with alcohol and/or over-the-counter pain medications can also result in a fatal unintentional overdose.

  • Among people 35 to 54 years old, unintentional drug overdoses cause more deaths than motor vehicle crashes and is the leading cause of death in seven States.
  • More than 70 percent of people who abused prescription pain relievers report getting them from friends or relatives.
  • Although males are more likely to die from an unintentional drug overdose, female rates have nearly tripled since 1999 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

In addition to the risk of overdose, over-the-counter, prescription medications and illicit drugs, can affect a person’s ability to safely drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery.

What puts someone at risk for an unintentional overdose

Higher daily dosage: Researchers found that high doses of prescribed opioids increase a person’s risk of an unintentional overdose. Never take more than is prescribed. If you still have pain, call your physician to discuss your options.

Early refills of prescriptions: Patients should wait until their pain medication prescription is almost empty before refilling – and only if it is really needed.

Taking medication with alcohol or sedatives: Mixing opioids with alcohol or benzodiazepines (helps with sleep, relieves anxiety) increases a person’s risk of an unintentional overdose. 

Drug interactions: Mixing drugs, including prescription, over-the-counter and supplements may cause mild to severe reactions including death. Keep a record of the medications and supplements you are currently taking, including over-the-counter and supplements.

Prevent unintentional drug overdoses:

  • Use medications only as directed by your physician.
  • Always follow the recommended dosage prescribed by your physician.
  • Keep medications in their original container.
  • Don’t share prescribed medications.
  • Properly dispose of any unused or expired medications. Find out how you can safely dispose of medications.
  • Talk with your physician or pharmacist for possible drug interactions. You also can check for interactions on the drugs you are taking at or at the Mayo Clinic



Every second counts. If you suspect someone may have overdosed, call 9-1-1 immediately.  Although they may look as if they are sleeping, they may actually be unconscious. After calling 9-1-1, move the person into the recovery position and be prepared for CPR.

Sometimes, if not used correctly or not use as prescribed, use of pain killers can lead to drug dependency and misuse. If you or someone you know needs help for substance abuse problems call 1-800-662-HELP or talk to a physician. Effective treatments are available.

Additional Resources

Food and Drug Administration

  • My Medicine Record: Keep track of all you medications. Have this list handy for your doctor, pharmacist or other health care professional.
  • Safe Use Initiativeprevent harm from medications.

Centers for Disease Control:


For poisonings that can be safely handled at home, call the National Poison Control Center number at

For all other emergencies call 9-1-1 immediately.




The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released a national strategy to combat deaths related to unintentional drug overdoses, as well as other related issues.

Issue Brief : Unintentional Drug Poisoning in the United States

Poisoning Prevention and Children

While children rarely die today from unintentional poisonings, non-fatal poisonings from prescription and over-the-counter medications remain concern. An estimated 60,000 children visit the emergency room each year from poisonings.
Keep your children safe.

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