More people presented to Christchurch Hospital's emergency department after overdosing on common painkillers during the five-week Covid-19 lockdown, study shows.
The findings come from a new study undertaken by University of Otago, Christchurch, and highlight the risks associated with the over-the-counter sale of large, cheap boxes of painkillers, lead researcher Dr Laura Joyce said.
It comes after Coroner David Robinson made a recommendation in July this year for paracetamol sales to be limited after the accidental overdose of a 20-year-old woman. He recommended a maximum of 32 500mg tablets at a pharmacy, or 100 tablets by prescription.
Joyce said the team recorded the number of presentations to ED during the national lockdown, between March 26 and April 28, to understand the impact on New Zealanders health-seeking behaviours. They also recorded the number and type of mental health presentations.
During this period, the number of patient presenting to ED dropped by 37 per cent (or more than 3500 patients) compared with the same period the previous year. There was also a 34 per cent drop in the number of people presenting specifically with mental health problems.
However, among the people attending ED with mental health concerns, there was a 6.5 per cent increase in people attending after overdoses and a 3.5 per cent increase in self-harm presentations. The proportion of overdoses of paracetamol and ibuprofen increased by 13.4 per cent compared to other drugs during the lockdown.
Joyce said people may have stockpiled large supplies of paracetamol and ibuprofen painkillers before the lockdown. Emergency doctors and toxicologists had also noticed an increase in the severity of paracetamol poisonings recently. Many were concerned by how easy it has become for anyone to purchase large quantities of painkillers, she said.
The Government-mandated national lockdown - when everyone was asked to "stay home and save lives" - had significant impacts on health-seeking behaviours, Joyce said. Quantifying changes through the study gave a greater understanding of the impact of the virus and associated restrictions, including on the mental health of New Zealanders.
"It has been argued that, in March and April, New Zealand had one of the toughest lock-down restrictions in the world, giving rise to concern about the potential impact on the mental health of the population.
"ED is a good place to understand the impact of the restrictions on the mental health status of the population," she said.
During March and April, there is typically a seasonal drop of about 10 per cent in both overall and specific mental health presentations to the ED.
The drop was far greater this year, with at least a third fewer people presenting overall and for mental health issues.