ER Visits for Drug Overdose Rising Among Young Adults

A person holds a handful of pills.
(Image credit: fizkes/

Visits to the emergency room for drug overdoses are on the rise among young adults in the United States, according to a new report.

Researchers analyzed information from a national survey of U.S. hospitals, and looked at emergency room visits for drug poisoning, such as overdoses of painkillers (including opiates), fever-reducing medications or sedatives.

Overall, there were 1.1 million emergency room visits to all U.S. hospitals for drug poisoning each year between 2008 and 2011, the researchers found.

Among people ages 20 to 34, the rate of ER visits for drug poisoning increased from 36 visits per 10,000 people between 2004 and 2007, to 54 visits per 10,000 people between 2008 and 2011.

Young adults also had the highest rate of ER visits related to drug poisoning visits, compared with other age groups. From 2008 to 2011, the rate of emergency room visits for drug poisoning was 29 visits per 10,000 people among those under age 20; 42 per 10,000 people among those ages 35 to 49; and 25 visits per 10,000 for those ages 50 and over. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today's Parents]

In most age groups, the rate of ER visits for drug poisoning was about the same for men and women, except in the group of people ages 35 to 49. In that age group, women had a much higher rate of ER visits for drug poisoning compared to men: 51 visits per 10,000 people, compared to 32 visits per 10,000 people among men.

Among all age groups, unintentional overdoses were more common than intentional ones: There were 17 ER visits per 10,000 people for unintentional poisoning, versus 13 visits per 10,000 people for intentional poisoning. However, among women, the rate of unintentional poisoning was about the same as the rate of intentional poisoning.

Among unintentional overdoses, about one-quarter occurred due to sedatives, hypnotics, tranquilizers and other psychotropic agents. Meanwhile, 6 percent were due to heroin or methadone; 8 percent to other opiates and related narcotics; and 10 percent to other painkillers, fever-reducing medications and a class of medications sometimes used for rheumatoid arthritis. The rest of the visits (48 percent) were due to other drugs.

About one-quarter of people who visited the ER for drug poisoning needed to be admitted to the hospital. This is double the rate of hospitalization for all other reasons for visiting an emergency room (12.7 percent).

"Although visits for drug poisoning made up a small percentage of overall [ER] visits, they tended to be more serious, resulting in more frequent hospitalization," the researchers said.

The new findings may help inform efforts to prevent drug-poisoning injuries and deaths, the researchers said.

The report follows a study published last month, which found that the rate of deaths from heroin overdose nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.