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Prescription painkiller deaths have "skyrocketed" in women, says CDC

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Number of women dying from drug overdose has "skyrocketed" says CDC

Prescription pain reliever deaths among women have increased five-fold in the last decade, jumping from 1,287 deaths in 1999 to a staggering 6,631 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Among men during that same period, prescription painkiller deaths nearly quadrupled to 10,020, meaning that 17,000 Americans die each year from opiate overdoses, which is over 4 times more the number of deaths just 10 years ago.

"Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women," said CDC director, Dr. Tom Frieden. "Stopping this epidemic in women, and in men, is everyone's business. Doctors need to be cautious about prescribing and patients about using these drugs."

Each day in the U.S., approximately 42 women die from drug overdose, the CDC said. Of those 42 women, 18 die each day from prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin and other opiates.

According to the study that analyzed data from the National Vital Statistics System and the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN for short), the rise in overdose deaths is part of a larger and worsening problem, as evidenced by some 943, 365 women who ended up in U.S. emergency rooms in 2010 because they either misused or abused drugs.

At the top of the list for drugs women abuse are heroin, cocaine, opiate painkillers and benzodiazepines like Valium and Zanax. And while men used to be twice as likely to die from drug overdoses, women are rapidly catching up, especially when it comes to opiate overdoses.

“The prescription painkiller problem affects women in different ways than men and all health care providers treating women should be aware of this,” said Linda C. Degutis, Dr.P.H., M.S.N., director of CDC′s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Health care providers can help improve the way painkillers are prescribed while making sure women have access to safe and effective pain treatment.”

Exacerbating the problem is that, unlike illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine, prescription pain medications, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, have a patina of legitimacy, said Dr. David Sack, an addiction psychiatrist with Promises Treatment Center in Malibu, Calif.

“People assume that because it’s prescribed by a doctor, it’s safe,” Sack explained.

Daniel Raymond, a public policy director for the advocacy group Harm Reduction Coalition, agrees, saying that prescription pain meds do not have the same stigma that illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine do.

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“There doesn’t seem to be the same level of punitive social attitudes,” Raymond said.

And it’s not just that more women are overdosing on opiate painkillers – more women are also dying as a result.

In a recent study, researchers found that deaths not only soared among women between 1999 and 2010, but they also were also more likely than men to be prescribed painkillers, as well as get higher doses of the drugs and use them chronically more than men.

Prior research has even suggested that pain may be more prevalent in women, and that they may be more sensitive to its effects due, in part, to the fact that they typically weigh far less than men; thus, a single pain pill would likely have more of an impact on their smaller bodies.

Additionally, more women tend to take a variety of medications prescribed by multiple doctors, including anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants.

“Most of the fatalities aren’t on a single medicine. It’s a mix of medicines,” Sack noted. “And why you mix alcohol and opiate drugs, it’s a deadly combination.”

Experts say that many women who become addicted to prescription opiates have been victims of sexual abuse or some other trauma.

According to the CDC, the majority the deaths from prescription opioids was in middle-aged women, with 1,515 deaths in 2010 being women between the ages of 35 and 44 – and 2,239 deaths being women between 45 to 54 years during that same time period.

Another problem is that some of the women who become addicted to these drugs get pregnant, giving birth to children with resultant birth defects, including neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. In fact, a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the number of babies born with NAS tripled between 2000 and 2009.

There are no easy answers, as it can be difficult for women to seek treatment, especially if they’re concerned about the effect their drug-taking has on their children. However, a campaign to increase awareness of the problem while encouraging doctors to be more prudent in prescribing opiate pain medications is a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s a good wake-up call that we need to make sure we take gender-sensitive approaches, whether that’s tailoring treatment access or recognizing some of the underlying causes of the histories of abuse,” Raymond said. “Nobody’s immune from this.”

SOURCE: 1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Press Release: “Deaths from Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Rise Sharply Among Women” (July 2, 2013); 2. CDC, “New CDC Vital Signs: Prescription Painkiller Epidemic Among Women” (July 2, 2013); 3. CDC, “Prescription Painkiller Overdoses: A growing epidemic, especially among women” (July 2013).