Increasing number of older Australians dying from accidental overdoses

Over three quarters of overdose deaths last year involved pharmaceutical opioids.

The number of Australians accidentally dying from overdoses of prescription drugs is on the rise, with more than three quarters of overdose deaths involving pharmaceutical opioids.

A total of 1045 people died in 2016 from opioid overdoses, says a report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) released today.

Australians are dying from accidental overdoses on prescription morphine, codeine, oxycodone and fentanyl, with drug experts closely monitoring the creeping death rates linked to the latter synthetic drug.

Opioid induced death rates have almost doubled in the past 10 years, from 3.8 to 6.6 deaths per 100,000 Australians.

Prescription drugs accounted for 65 per cent of these deaths, another 11 per cent were attributed to pharmaceutical opioids mixed with heroin, 500 people died from overdoses on morphine, oxycodone and codeine, and another 214 deaths were caused by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, tramadol and pethidine.

Most of the opioid deaths (85 per cent) were considered accidental. However, 12 per cent were intentional and three per cent were not clear.

The rate of opioid-induced deaths was higher among males, and in 2016 alone, 143 people aged between 55 and 84 died from accidental opioid overdoses, from a total of 409 people who overdosed.


The report shows the danger of mixing prescription drugs, with 45 per cent of all accidental fatalities attributed to combining medications with benzodiazepine, 23 per cent with antidepressants, 14 per cent with drinking alcohol, 13.5 per cent with antipsychotics and 9.9 per cent with over-the-counter paracetamol.

While Australia’s rate of prescription drug overdoses hardly rivals that of the United States’ ‘epidemic’ rates, University of New South Wales Drug Trends program leader Dr Amy Peacock believes we’re on a similar trajectory.

“Although we are carefully monitoring the situation in Australia, at the moment, there is little evidence to suggest that illicit fentanyl is playing a large part in our opioid overdoses,” said Dr Peacock.

According to the report, there were 357 heroin deaths among Australians aged 15-64 in 2016, 105 deaths caused by amphetamines and fewer than 20 people had cocaine-related fatalities.

“This situation of increasing deaths due to pharmaceutical opioids in Australia has generated a response in the policy space. State and federal governments are considering a range of strategies, rolling out prescription monitoring programs and other interventions intended to reduce risky opioid prescribing.”

The Victorian Government already has a large-scale real-time prescription monitoring system in place, and the New South Wales Government is also being called upon by that state's deputy coroner to prioritise implementing a similar program.

“Last month, the coroner said NSW needed to implement real-time prescription monitoring as a matter of urgency to help prevent accidental overdose deaths like that of young Sydney mother Alissa Campbell in 2015,” said State Opposition Leader Luke Foley.

“I urge the NSW government to introduce real-time prescription monitoring, if it doesn’t act on this Labor will, if elected in 2019.”

Dr Peacock says that anyone close to regular opioid users should carry and learn how to administer naloxone – an over-the-counter medicine that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, giving users time to seek medical help.

In February, the Federal Government introduced an over-the-counter codeine ban to curb codeine abuse and overdoses, with the painkillers now only accessible by prescription.

Do you take opioids? Do you ever worry about possible interactions with your medicines? Have you ever had a close call with an overdose?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    20th Aug 2018
    Yes well the pharmacists offered this last year during the debate on codeine being withdrawn from sale OTC. It was howled down then by the GPs and other 'do-gooders' and that was for around 140 deaths in 10 years. So what are they going to do now? Send round a nurse to administer all medications in case you decide to take the lot or 'forget' to take them at all, or heaven forbid, have a drink. And now some other busy body wants families and cares to be responsible and carry naloxone in case someone 'overdoses'.

    There is already help available in the form of Webster packs for those who may be 'forgetful with medications. This is going to turn into yet another nanny movement for those who choose to ignore medical advice. The alternative is ban the drugs completely. Let's see how that will work for them!
    20th Aug 2018
    The government (no matter what party) doesn't do anything for us so I am wondering what the bottom line is.
    20th Aug 2018
    This is a Labor party push in conjunction with the My Health Records. It is an even further delving into privacy. Big Brother is sure getting some broad shoulders.

    Just like the codeine issue its making it harder and harder for people to get pain relief. Somehow they think it will stop the illegal drug trade. Its more likely to increase it.

    I suggest anyone can overdose with the legal prescriptions without "drug shopping".
    20th Aug 2018
    There definitely is 'doctor shopping' and it happens in all age groups oldies included. Some oldies are even selling the pills - there was an article on this site about it too.

    The scripts are registered with Medicare which is how 'they' find out about it down the track. Real time checking via the pharmacist would stop that as indeed it would have done for codeine and cold medications (containing pseudoephedrine).
    20th Aug 2018
    Are we sure that all these deaths are "accidental?"
    With Doctor assisted euthanasia being illegal, it is a do-it-yourself option only.
    20th Aug 2018
    jennie, fully agree with you, many many elderly are feeling they are not longer wanted or appreciated, just visit some and you can feel they have given up.
    20th Aug 2018
    Accidental?..If people are being prescribed Opioids, it is very likely they are living a life with a lot of pain, so the next best guess is that they have a terminal disease anyway.

    But its not necessary to have a terminal disease, to need strong pain relief. Medication will improve physical and cognitive performance. With many chronic diseases in old age, people can benefit from some medication, that is sometimes applied these days with exercise.

    Then we come to neuropathic pain and intractable pain where quite often the "cause" of the pain is not known, so the only choice is to treat the "pain itself". Doctors do not have a diagnostic test for the amount of pain a person is suffering, so they have to estimate it.

    The most serious of the pains is intractable pain where the person only has small windows of time when the pain is not present. The pain is continuous and the heart beats at a very high rate when the pain elevates. Obviously Opioids have a lot to offer here to improve the quality of life. An assessment by a GP who is against the use of Opioids sometimes results in the diagnosis, that the patient "has to learn to live with it". Obviously this can result in suicide, or death by heart attack or stroke can be brought on by life with little sleep or relaxation.

    There is some very good supportive information on the internet for people who have intractable pain. The "intractable pain patients handbook for survival" by Dr Forrest Tennant is quite good
    20th Aug 2018
    No, you can be prescribed Opioids for recovery from major surgery or trauma. It is very beneficial to recovery.
    20th Aug 2018
    Yes but these are for acute pain, not chronic pain.

    The risk of patients overdosing comes mainly from the chronic pain group who have (over time) moved on the maximum daily doses and have been taking the drug for years. Some are reaching the stage where the opioid they are using has lost its effectiveness, therefore there is a need to take more. In recent years, specialists have been trying to remedy this, by rotating one opioid with another.

    Post op treatment of pain is not considered risky as it is mostly supervised in hospital. The situation can of course become chronic.
    20th Aug 2018
    I think It could be suicides. The psychologist from claims many old people suffer from depression.
    20th Aug 2018
    rter, have to fully agree not just depression but also a lot of being abandoned by the world, we all could help by visiting or talking to some of our older neighbours
    20th Aug 2018
    Such a mess when there are Non Drug products (not even ingested or induced) available working far better and safer than traditional Pharma products Even with the millions of people using these non drug products to effectively and quickly ease chronic pain and other serious condition it is found they cannot be "Overdosed" and have no harmful side effects.
    23rd Aug 2018
    I live in the country of South Australia and some doctors we have should be struck off. One gave me blood pressure medication that conflicted badly with my gout medication. Another dismissed my increase of gout incidents as "just being active' and nothing else. Later, another doctor picked-up on the blood pressure medication and promptly changed it. He then proceeded to overdose me on the new medication from the absolute maximum of 36mg to 48mg. I changed my doctor and now have one who is 'tops' and now I take only a small amount of tablets. To everyone I say this, if you are not sure about your medication get on the internet and google your medication so that you can see if your doctor is a 'real' one or just another 'pill-pusher'

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