To compare the characteristics of dextropropoxyphene (DXP) poisoning victims with those of victims of poisonings by antidepressants and sedatives, we examined all fatal poisonings due to DXP, antidepressants or sedatives among autopsies performed at one department of forensic medicine in Sweden during the six-year period from 1992 to 1997.
In 202 cases, death was classified as fatal poisonings by DXP, antidepressants or sedatives. DXP caused death in 78 cases (39%), antidepressants in 49 (24%), and sedatives in 75 (37%). DXP as a single preparation was predominant in causing death. The second compound, flunitrazepam, caused death in 30 cases (15%).
The victims of poisonings by DXP, antidepressants, or sedatives shared a similar history of alcohol/drug abuse, depression and somatic illness. They were mostly living alone at the time of death (>60%), the majority died at home (81%), and suicide was the most frequent manner of death (73%).
Age seemed to be an important characteristic regarding the choice of drug. Younger people predominantly died of DXP (mean age 43 years, 95% confidence interval, CI 39–47), and elderly people of sedatives (mean age 59 years, CI 55–63). Antidepressants were found mainly in middle-aged victims (mean age 51 years, CI 48–54).
The predominance of sedatives among the elderly might be explained by a very high prescription rate of such drugs in older age groups, but prescription rate could not explain the DXP predominance among younger people. We hypothesize that younger people are more prone to abuse therapeutic drugs for cuphoric reasons than elderly people, and that because of its high toxicity, DXP leads to accidental deaths more often than sedatives.