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Original article

Vol. 149 No. 2930 (2019)

Emergency department presentations related to abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs in Switzerland: time trends, sex and age distributions

  • Irene Scholz
  • Yasmin Schmid
  • Aristomenis K. Exadaktylos
  • Manuel Haschke
  • Matthias E. Liechti
  • Evangelia Liakoni
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2019;149:w20056



To analyse emergency department (ED) presentations related to acute medical problems after recreational use of prescription/over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in two major Swiss hospitals in order to identify the prevalence of specific drugs, vulnerable groups, time trends and local differences which could have major public health implications.


Retrospective analysis of cases presenting with signs/symptoms consistent with acute toxicity due to recreational use of prescription/OTC drugs from May 2012 to August 2017 at the ED of the University Hospital of Bern and from October 2013 to July 2017 at the ED of the University Hospital Basel. We investigated time trends, sex differences, patient characteristics and consumption patterns within three age groups (≥16 to <36 years; ≥36 to <56 years; ≥56 years).


During the study period, 344 cases were included out of 1715 ED attendances due to acute drug toxicity and a total of 412,557 ED presentations. The use of prescription drugs in conjunction with illegal drugs was reported in nearly half the cases. The most frequently reported prescription drugs were benzodiazepines (64%, n = 220) and methadone (13%, n = 45). Forty-eight percent (n = 166) of all presentations occurred within the youngest age group. The analysis of time trends showed a significant increase in presentations in the youngest and the oldest groups in Basel (both p <0.05), while the trend remained stable over time in Bern for all age groups. While the number of presentations remained constant over time for men and women in Bern, a significant increase was found for the female cohort in Basel (p <0.05). Patients in all age groups presented with toxicities of predominantly minor severity.


The prescription/OTC drugs most frequently leading to ED presentations after recreational use were sedative substances. A large proportion of the patients belonged to the youngest age group. A significant increase in presentations was seen in the youngest and oldest age groups and within women in Basel. This information can be used to inform health care providers so that they can adapt their prevention and treatment strategies in their communities.


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