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Deaths from Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Rise Sharply Among Women

Updated July 10, 2013


Deaths from Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Rise Sharply Among Women

Press release by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The number of prescription painkiller overdose deaths increased five fold among women
between 1999 and 2010, according to a Vital Signs ( report
released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While men are more likely to
die of a prescription painkiller overdose, since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was
greater among women (400 percent in women compared to 265 percent in men). Prescription
painkiller overdoses killed nearly 48,000 women between 1999 and 2010.

“Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women (6,600 in 2010), four times as
many as died from cocaine and heroin combined,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D.,
M.P.H. “Stopping this epidemic in women – and men – is everyone’s business. Doctors need
to be cautious about prescribing and patients about using these drugs.”

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

• About 42 women die every day from a drug overdose.
◦ Since 2007, more women have died from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle
◦ Drug overdose suicide deaths accounted for 34 percent of all suicides among women
compared with 8 percent among men in 2010.
◦ More than 940,000 women were seen in emergency departments for drug misuse or
abuse in 2010.


• Prescription painkillers have been a major contributor to increases in drug overdose
deaths among women.
◦ 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 three minutes.

For the Vital Signs report, CDC analyzed data from the National Vital Statistics System (1999-
2010) and the Drug Abuse Warning Network public use file (2004-2010).

Previous research has shown that 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.
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).

“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.”

Steps that health care providers can take when treating women include:

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

Women can take steps to help stay safe from prescription painkiller overdoses, including:

• Using prescription drugs only as directed by a health care provider.
Discussing all medications they are taking with their health care provider, including overthe-
counter medications (such as for allergies).
• Discussing pregnancy plans with their health care provider before taking prescription
• Disposing of medications properly, as soon as the course of treatment is done. Not keeping
prescription medications around “just in case.”
• Helping prevent misuse and abuse by not selling or sharing prescription drugs. Never
using another person’s prescription drugs.
• Getting help for substance abuse problems (1-800-662-HELP) and calling Poison Help (1-
800-222-1222) with questions about medicines.

CDC's Injury Center works to protect the safety of everyone, every day. For more information
about prescription drug overdoses, please visit


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