Relative toxicity of analgesics commonly used for intentional self-poisoning: A study of case fatality based on fatal and non-fatal overdoses

Keith Hawton, Anne Ferrey, Deborah Casey, Claudia Wells, Alice Fuller, Clare Bankhead, Caroline Clements, Jennifer Ness, David Gunnell, Navneet Kapur, Galit Geulayov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Analgesics are used most frequently in fatal and non-fatal medicinal self-poisonings. Knowledge about their relative toxicity in overdose is important for clinicians and regulatory agencies. Methods: Using data for 2005–2012 we investigated case fatality (number of suicides relative to number of non-fatal self-poisonings) of paracetamol, aspirin, codeine, dihydrocodeine, tramadol, paracetamol with codeine (co-codamol), paracetamol with dihydrocodeine (co-dydramol), ibuprofen and co-proxamol (paracetamol plus dextropropoxyphene; withdrawn in the UK in 2008 due to high toxicity). Data on suicides obtained from the Office for National Statistics and on non-fatal self-poisonings from the Multicentre Study of Self-harm in England. Case fatality was estimated for each drug, using paracetamol as the reference category. Results: Compared to paracetamol and based on single drug deaths the case fatality index of dihydrocodeine was considerably elevated (odds ratio (OR) 12.81, 95% Confidence Interval (CI) 10.19–16.12). Case fatality indices for tramadol (OR 4.05, 95% CI 3.38–4.85) and codeine (OR 2.21, 95% CI 1.81–2.70) were also significantly higher than for paracetamol. The results when multiple drug deaths were included produced similar results. The relative toxicity of co-proxamol far exceeded that of the other analgesics. Limitations: Data on fatal self-poisonings were based on national data, whereas those for non-fatal poisonings were based on local data. Conclusions: Dihydrocodeine and tramadol are particularly toxic in overdose and codeine is also relatively toxic. They should be prescribed with caution, particularly to individuals at risk of self-harm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)814-819
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Early online date4 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • Analgesics
  • Self-poisoning
  • Suicide
  • Toxicity


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