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CDC Report: Deaths From Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Rise Sharply Among Women

Emergency department visits also on the rise (July 2)

The number of prescription painkiller overdose deaths increased fivefold among women between 1999 and 2010, according to a new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While men are more likely to die of a prescription painkiller overdose, since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was greater among women (400% in women compared with 265% in men).

The study included emergency department visits and deaths related to drug misuse/abuse and overdose, as well as analyses specific to prescription painkillers. The key findings include:

  • More than 6,600 women, or 18 women every day, died from a prescription painkiller overdose in 2010.
  • There were four times more deaths among women from prescription painkiller overdose than for cocaine and heroin deaths combined in 2010.
  • In 2010, there were more than 200,000 emergency department visits for opioid misuse or abuse among women; about one every 3 minutes.

Previous research has shown that women are more likely to have chronic pain, to be prescribed prescription painkillers, to be given higher doses, and to use them for longer periods than do men. Studies have also shown that women may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men and may be more likely than men to engage in “doctor shopping” (obtaining prescriptions from multiple prescribers).

When treating women, health care providers should:

  • Follow guidelines for responsible opioid prescribing, including screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems
  • Use their states’ prescription drug monitoring program; this can help identify patients who may be improperly using opioids and other drugs
  • Discuss pain treatment options, including ones that do not involve prescription drugs
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of taking prescription painkillers, including when painkillers are taken for chronic conditions, and especially during pregnancy
  • Avoid prescribing combinations of prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines unless there is a specific medical indication

Source: CDC; July 2, 2013.

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