Did Polypharmacy Kill Whitney Houston? Another Teachable Moment

You know their names: Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael Jackson.

All gone because of a deadly combination of medications.

Will Whitney Houston now join this list?

Only a few details of the investigation have been released,  including that the singer was found in the bathtub, and that “foul play” was not suspected.

Although there is no official cause of death for the singing icon who died on Saturday, behind the scenes, sources are saying that a combination of alcohol and medications may have played a role in Houston’s death.

However TMZ is reporting that Houston’s family “was told by L.A. County Coroner officials … the singer did not die from drowning, but rather from what appears to be a combination of Xanax and other prescription drugs mixed with alcohol.” Final autopsy reports will not be revealed for at least 6 to 8 weeks, pending results of toxicology.

Houston’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction are well known, but lately she seemed to be on the road to a comeback. She recently finished filming the movie Sparkle, which is scheduled for release this August.

Investigators are trying to piece together that last days and hours of the singer’s life by interviewing family, friends and staff.  ABC News reports that Houston spent the previous evening at a party for Grammy nominee Kelly Price‘s party, “Kelly Price and Friends Unplugged: For the Love of R&B Grammy Party” at the nightclub, Tru Hollywood. At the party, Houston was seen dancing and drinking champagne.

Is Polypharmacy the Name of a New Drug Store Chain in SoCal?

No, the term “polypharmacy” refers to the use of multiple medications by an individual patient. Taking many different drugs at the same time is not necessarily a bad thing because people can suffer from several diseases and conditions simultaneously and treatment may require the use of multiple medications.

However when more than one drug is taken, this situation increases the chance of drug-drug interactions that can have detrimental, even deadly, combination effects.

Combined drug intoxication (CDI), also known as multiple drug intake (MDI) or lethal polydrug/polypharmacy intoxication, is an unnatural cause of human death. While it is sometimes reported as a simple “overdose”, it is distinct in that it is due to the simultaneous use of multiple drugs. This mixture can include over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, legally or illegally obtained prescription drugs, herbal mixtures, and home remedies. Ingestion of alcoholic beverages, in combination with other drugs, increases the risk.

 Xanax® (generic name is alprazolam) is used to treat anxiety disorders and panic disorder (sudden, unexpected attacks of extreme fear and worry about these attacks). Alprazolam is in a class of medications called benzodiazepines. It works by decreasing abnormal excitement in the brain.

Xanax can cause excess central nervous system (CNS) depression, leading to:

  • Extreme sleepiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shallow breathing
  • Dizziness, impaired balance and muscle weakness.

It’s not hard to imagine that if you take a medication like Xanax, along with other drugs with similar potential side effects and a little alcohol on top, that the consequences can be deadly!

People often underestimate the dangers of medications, thinking “My doctor gave it to me so it must be OK”, or “It’s sold over the counter, so it must be safe.” If you’re taking more than one drug, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist about potential dangers of taking the drugs together.

Is Whitney Houston a victim of combined drug intoxication? Only the toxicology report will be able to tell us. Stay tuned…

Which Whitney Houston song is part of the “soundtrack of your life”?

UPDATE 2/15/12: Even the White House Gets Involved!

Although an official cause of death is still under investigation, even the White House is speculating that Whitney’s Houston death may be related to a problem with prescription medications and alcohol.

The Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, reminded us that problems with prescription drugs have caused more than 15,000 deaths in the United States alone:

I think it’s what we might call a teachable moment when someone passes, particularly someone that was as highly thought of and was such an incredible performer as Whitney Houston.

[It] also tells you that the drug problem crosses almost every demographic and economic barrier…. So, we can use this as a moment to help people understand, remember there are literally millions of Americans who are struggling with this problem, either themselves or a close family member. So, we can use this as a chance to move forward.

We at Celebrity Diagnosis couldn’t agree more. Isn’t that why we’re here?


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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