WASHINGTON -- Federal health officials are investigating sometimes-deadly overdoses with common anti-diarrhea drugs, a bizarre manifestation of the nation's drug abuse problem.
The primary ingredient in prescription Imodium and similar over-the-counter drugs, loperamide, is intended to control diarrhea. But abusers sometimes try to achieve heroin-like highs by taking massive doses, up to 300 milligrams at once, according to cases in the medical literature. Recommended doses range between 8 milligrams and 16 milligrams per day.
The Food and Drug Administration warned doctors and patients Tuesday that the drugs can cause potentially deadly heart problems when taken at higher-than-recommended levels.
The agency has received 31 reports of people hospitalized due to the heart problems, including 10 deaths over the last 39 years. The agency's database is not comprehensive and many drug overdoses are not reported to the government.
But as CBS News reported last month, national poison control centers experienced a 71 percent increase in calls involving loperamide-containing drugs between 2011 and 2014, according to a journal article published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
"Folks that are desperately addicted, folks that are looking to stave off withdrawal symptoms, will do whatever it takes, sometimes, really extreme things," Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds of the Family and Children's Association told CBS New York. "So in the scheme of things, taking 300 pills is not unheard of."
The authors of Tuesday's FDA report recommended restricting over-the-counter sales of the anti-diarrhea drugs, similar to other easily abused medications like pseudoephedrine, the decongestant used in Sudafed and other pills that can be processed into methamphetamine.
FDA regulators said in an online posting that they are monitoring the issue and considering next steps.
Reports of abuse are rising amid an epidemic of addiction and abuse involving opioids, a family of drugs that includes narcotics like heroin and legal prescriptions like morphine and oxycodone. In some cases, opioid abusers will attempt to wean themselves off those drugs by substituting the anti-diarrhea drugs.
In 2014, more than 47,000 drug overdoses were recording in the U.S., with opioids accounting for 61 percent of that total, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal and state authorities have been trying to reverse opioid abuse for years, though overdose deaths have continued to rise.