Deaths from Methadone Increasing

In 2006, 17-year-old Tim Zigler came home one evening and quickly went to bed. The next morning, his father found him unconscious and barely breathing. He died before an ambulance arrived.

The Spokane, Washington teenager had taken methadone that previous night before coming home, said his father, Ken Zigler. “Tim didn’t have any tolerance for methadone,” said Zigler, who called the drug “horribly dangerous.”

Andy Miller writes in an article for that a new federal report found that the number of deaths involving methadone jumped nearly sevenfold from 1999 to 2006.

The rise in methadone-related fatalities was faster than increases in deaths from other opioid analgesics—drugs such as OxyContin and fentanyl—and from other narcotics.

Overall, poisoning deaths involving all opioid analgesics more than tripled over the seven-year time frame, increasing among all age groups, said the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Methadone is widely known for treatment of heroin addiction, but it has been increasingly prescribed to manage pain.

In March, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said methadone’s growing use for pain management has made more of the drug available, contributing to an increase in methadone-related overdose deaths.

Methadone prescriptions for pain management jumped from about 531,000 in 1998 to more than 4 million in 2006, the GAO found. Deaths related to the drug can occur from improper dosing levels, misuse by patients who may combine it with other drugs, or abuse of the drug for non-medical purposes, the agency said.

The CDC report said “a lack of knowledge about the unique properties of methadone was identified as contributing to some deaths.”

“We’ve been watching the trend in methadone deaths,” said Margaret Warner, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and a co-author of the report. “Methadone has a long half-life. It stays in your body.”

The methadone poisonings have continued in the last two years, Warner said. “There have been some programs to address the problem. We’re hoping they decrease the deaths.”

Methadone is effective in treating heroin and pharmaceutical opiate addiction, said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. It’s also a good pain management drug if taken exactly as prescribed, he said.

But the rising death rate from methadone, especially from prescriptions, is not surprising because of its increased overall use, Banta-Green said. “If they take it when it’s not prescribed, it’s dangerous. If you’re not opiate-tolerant, it could kill you.”

Zigler now talks about methadone and his son’s death to teen groups. “My son’s death is tragic enough,” he said. “I’m trying to turn something horrible into something good—by educating the teens of the dangers of prescription drugs, especially methadone.”