Case series of 226 γ-hydroxybutyrate–associated deaths: lethal toxicity and trauma

Published:April 29, 2010DOI:


      γ-Hydroxybutyrate (GHB) and its prodrugs are drugs of abuse that were also sold as “dietary supplements.” Users present to emergency departments with overdose, impaired driving, withdrawal, and associated trauma. We compiled a series of GHB-associated deaths to elucidate lethal risks, GHB concentrations, cointoxicants, products, uses, and medical interventions. Death records were reviewed for toxicology, autopsy findings, and history. Inclusion cutoffs were as follows: 5/10 mg/L of GHB (antemortem blood/urine) and 50/20/7 mg/L of GHB (postmortem blood/urine/vitreous). Of 226 deaths included, 213 had cardiorespiratory arrest and 13 had fatal accidents. Seventy-eight deaths (35%) had no cointoxicants. Sixteen deaths involved “supplements” and 1 involved pharmaceutical GHB (Xyrem, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Palo Alto, CA). Postmortem blood GHB was 18 to 4400 mg/L (median, 347 mg/L) in deaths negative for cointoxicants. Cardiorespiratory arrest occurred prehospital in 100% of 184 cases with available history. Of 72 cases with antemortem adverse effects reported, medical assistance was delayed or absent in 66; of these, acute GHB ingestion was known in 51, including 40 left to “sleep off” adverse effects. Thirty others were left “sleeping” and found dead. γ-Hydroxybutyrate is lethal even without cointoxicants, directly and through fatal accidents. Medical interventions were frequently delayed or absent despite known GHB ingestion, and witnessed adverse events and cardiorespiratory arrest occurred prehospital. Education is needed about the lethality of GHB and the necessity for prompt medical intervention.
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