Rolling Into the ER: Ecstasy Hospitalizations Spike, Spur Spring-Break Fears

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A new player might be joining the list of spring-break overdose dangers: the "club drug" ecstasy.

New government statistics show a 75 percent spike in ecstasy-related emergency room visits since 2004, prompting the director of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, to issue a public warning on the dangers of the popular party drug, especially with the spring break season approaching.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said, "The latest numbers show we need to work urgently and collaboratively to warn young people about the harms of drug use. Now is the time when a lot of young adults and high school kids are going on spring break trips, and this is, unfortunately, when young people often experiment with substance abuse."

And ecstasy-related substance abuse has been especially present in certain spring break hotspots in recent years.

"Miami Beach is like the playground of young adults in America," Dr. David Farcy, director of Mount Sinai Medical Center's Emergency Medicine Critical Division in Miami Beach, said. "We're seeing a lot more ER visits associated with ecstasy. I'd say ecstasy is one of the top three drugs of choice for Miami Beach."

Spring break is one of the peak times the hospital sees ecstasy-related ER visits, Farcy said, often by younger college students. Other peaks happen during music festivals such as in December's Day Glo Party in Miami, when more than a dozen patients came in suffering complications from ecstasy.

Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, is a mood-elevating drug that produces a relaxed, euphoric state but can lead to dangerous, even deadly complications.

Although the United States saw a dip in overall youth drug use -- specifically including ecstasy -- at the beginning of the decade, results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show ecstasy climbing in prevalence since 2008. According to data released Thursday, 18 percent of ER visits associated with the drug were by adolescents younger than 17.

"We need parents to step up and take a moment today to talk to their young people about this," Lemaitre of the Office of National Drug Control Policy said.

Ecstasy: Euphoria Can Turn Deadly

Although the verdict is still out on the long-term detrimental effects of MDMA, in the short term the drug can become dangerous in a number of ways, especially when taken in crowded public spaces and or in conjunction with other substances.

The immediate risks include dehydration, elevated core-body temperature, increased vulnerability to sexual assault because of mood changes, and possible contamination when "E" is cut with other, potentially lethal substances, said Dessa Bergen-Cico, assistant professor of addiction studies at Syracuse University.

Although the drug itself does not dehydrate, the euphoria produced by the drug makes users forget to drink water. At a crowded dance party, where users are likely to perspire and consume a lot of alcohol, dehydration can become deadly, ER doctors say.

That was the case last summer when Sasha Rodriguez, 15, died while at Los Angeles' Electric Daisy Carnival. Coroners later determined that her death resulted from complications from taking ecstasy.

Among "educated" drug users, drinking too much water can land them in the ER as well, Farcy said.

"Those who know the side effects will try to counteract them by drinking water, but then they over-drink and it dilutes their essential electrolytes," he said.

Those who come in on "E" often report symptoms such as headache, nausea, dehydration, vomiting and, in extreme cases, seizure because of increased body temperature, Farcy added.

Proactive Parents Should Prep Kids for Spring Break

In his announcement Thursday, drug control director Kerlikowske urged parents to "talk with their children about drugs and alcohol, set clear rules for time spent on vacations and stay informed about their teens' plans."

Drug abuse and addiction specialists add that the "talk" with kids should not be all in one go, but a series of talks over time, especially before kids leave for college.

Dr. Una McCann, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore, also urges parents not to take a judgmental or harsh attitude, such as saying that they expect their child never to use substances because such a tone will "guarantee that the conversation will shut down."

Instead, open and honest communication through a series of talks about drugs and alcohol abuse tends to be more effective, she said, as much as hearing about any substance abuse an adolescent might already partake in can be anxiety-producing for the parent.

In the specific talk leading up to spring break, parents should make sure kids know how to access emergency medical help and police in the location where they will be traveling, Syracuse professor Bergen-Cico said.

Parents should also warn their kids that they are at greater risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault, robbery or physical assault when under the influence.

Although the Office of National Drug Control Policy will be working to increase awareness of the danger of ecstasy, spokesman Lemaitre said, it's also important to remember that parents often serve as the first and best line of defense against drug abuse.