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Am J Emerg Med. 1990 Jan;8(1):16-22.

Quantitative serum toxic screening in the management of suspected drug overdose.

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  • 1Emergency Services Department, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston 02114.


Data were collected on 176 consecutive cases of drug overdose evaluated in an emergency department. Quantitative serum toxic screening (TS) was performed for 164 (93%) of these patients; positive results were noted for 133 patients (81%). Six classes of drugs (ethanol, benzodiazepines, salicylates, acetaminophen, barbiturates, and tricyclic antidepressants) were responsible for nearly 70% of all drug detections and were associated with 80% of all admissions in this patient sample. Only two patients (1%) had drug-specific treatment initiated because of TS results. In 12 patients (7%), TS confirmed substances for which specific treatments had been initiated on clinical grounds. Four patients (2%) had drug-specific treatment discontinued because of TS results. Thirty-two patients (19%) were admitted to a medical service; however, only seven patients (4%) were admitted primarily because of TS results. All other patients were admitted because of clinical abnormalities that required inpatient care. It is concluded that only a few drugs are responsible for most drug overdoses. Moreover, TS results rarely change the treatment or disposition of overdose patients; these decisions are typically based on clinical parameters.

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