Study: College-Age Youths Increasingly Overdose on Alcohol and Drugs

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College-age youth are increasingly overdosing on drugs and alcohol, according to 1999–2008 data on hospitalizations in this age group.

The rate of hospitalizations following overdose skyrocketed in people aged 18 to 24, the new study found: overdoses involving alcohol in combination with other drugs increased 76%; overdoses involving drugs other than alcohol rose 55%; and those involving alcohol alone went up 25%. The most striking rise was seen in overdoses involving prescription painkillers, which leapt 122% over the same period.

In 2008, researchers estimated that there were 114,000 hospitalizations for single or multiple drug overdoses, 29,000 for combination alcohol and other drug overdoses and 29,000 for alcohol-only ODs.

Adults over age 25 saw similar increases in overdose rates, except in those involving both alcohol and other drugs — that increase was less steep. Although alcohol is much more commonly used than other drugs, it was responsible for a smaller proportion of overall overdose-related admissions to the hospital.

MORE: On Overdose Awareness Day, a Mother’s Plea for Compassion

The costs of such hospitalizations total a whopping $1.2 billion per year, just for 18-to-24-year-olds alone, according to the study published in Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Overall, 1.8 million people were hospitalized for overdose in 2008, at a cost of $15.5 billion.

Researchers used data from a sample of 20% of community hospitals in the U.S. to estimate national statistics and costs. The study did not look at drug-related death rates, but according to federal statistics, 37,485 people died from overdose, largely driven by prescription drug misuse, in 2009 — the first year that overdose deaths outpaced the number of people killed in traffic accidents.

How can we cut the death toll? I wrote about one potential solution for the New York Times’ “Fixes” section on Friday, telling the story of a remarkable man who saved 14 lives with the overdose antidote naloxone. He saved 10 of those people after being brought back from overdose himself, with naloxone. If this drug were made available over the counter, half of all people who die from the most dangerous combinations of drugs in the U.S. could be spared. (For more on naloxone, I’ve written about it for TIME here and here.)

Given the enormous costs to lives and to the health-care system due to overdose, this is a fix that could do a lot of good.

MORE: Fueled by Growing Painkiller Use, Overdose Deaths and Child Poisonings Are on the Rise

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.