Prescription Painkiller Overdoses
A growing epidemic, especially among women
Nearly 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller* overdoses
between 1999 and 2010.
Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have
increased more than 400% since 1999, compared to 265% among
For every woman who dies of a prescription painkiller overdose,
30 go to the emergency department for painkiller misuse or
Prescription painkiller overdoses are a serious and growing
problem among women.
- More than 5 times as many women died from prescription
painkiller overdoses in 2010 as in 1999.
- Women between the ages of 25 and 54 are more likely than other
age groups to go to the emergency department from prescription
painkiller misuse or abuse. Women ages 45 to 54 have the highest
risk of dying from a prescription painkiller overdose.*
- Non-Hispanic white and American Indian or Alaska Native women
have the highest risk of dying from a prescription painkiller
- Prescription painkillers are involved in 1 in 10 suicides among
*Death data include unintentional,
suicide, and other deaths. Emergency department visits only include
suicide attempts if an illicit drug was involved in the
The prescription painkiller problem affects women in different
ways than men.
- Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed
prescription painkillers, be given higher doses, and use them for
longer time periods than men.
- Women may become dependent on prescription painkillers more
quickly than men.
- Women may be more likely than men to engage in “doctor
shopping” (obtaining prescriptions from multiple prescribers).
- Abuse of prescription painkillers by pregnant women can put an
infant at risk. Cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—which
is a group of problems that can occur in newborns exposed to
prescription painkillers or other drugs while in the womb—grew by
almost 300% in the US between 2000 and 2009.
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Prescription painkiller overdose deaths are a growing problem
SOURCE: Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2010.
(Suicide attempts are included for the cases (.03% of total) where
opioids were combined with illicit drugs in the attempt.)
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Federal government is:
- Tracking prescription drug overdose trends to better understand
- Educating health care providers and the public about
prescription drug misuse, abuse, suicide, and overdose, and the
risks for women.
- Developing and evaluating programs and policies that prevent
and treat prescription drug abuse and overdose, while making sure
patients have access to safe, effective pain treatment.
- Working to improve access to mental health and substance abuse
treatment through implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Health care providers can:
- Recognize that women can be at risk of prescription drug
- Discuss pain treatment options, including ones that do not
involve prescription drugs.
- Discuss the risks and benefits of taking prescription
painkillers, especially during pregnancy. This includes when
painkillers are taken for chronic conditions.
- Follow guidelines for responsible painkiller prescribing,
- Screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health
- Prescribing only the quantity needed based on appropriate pain
- Using patient-provider agreements combined with urine drug
tests for people using prescription painkillers long term.
- Teaching patients how to safely use, store, and dispose of
- Avoiding combinations of prescription painkillers and
benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium) unless there is a
specific medical indication.
- Talk with pregnant women who are dependent on prescription
painkillers about treatment options, such as opioid agonist
- Use prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs)—electronic
databases that track all controlled substance prescriptions in the
state—to identify patients who may be improperly using prescription
painkillers and other drugs.
- Take steps to improve PDMPs, such as real time data reporting
and access, integration with electronic health records, proactive
unsolicited reporting, incentives for provider use, and
interoperability with other states.
- Identify improper prescribing of painkillers and other
prescription drugs by using PDMPs and other data.
- Increase access to substance abuse treatment, including getting
immediate treatment help for pregnant women.
- Consider steps that can reduce barriers (such as lack of
childcare) to substance abuse treatment for women.
- Discuss all medications they are taking (including
over-the-counter) with their health care provider.
- Use prescription drugs only as directed by a health care
provider, and store them in a secure place.
- Dispose of medications properly, as soon as the course of
treatment is done. Do not keep prescription medications around
"just in case." (See
- Help prevent misuse and abuse by not selling or sharing
prescription drugs. Never use another person's prescription
- Discuss pregnancy plans with their health care provider before
taking prescription painkillers.
- Get help for substance abuse problems (1-800- 662-HELP); call
Poison Help (1-800-222-1222) for questions about medicines.