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Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the U.S.

Overdoses involving prescription painkillers—a class of drugs that includes hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone—are a public health epidemic. These drugs are widely misused and abused. One in 20 people in the United States, ages 12 and older, used prescription painkillers nonmedically (without a prescription or just for the "high" they cause) in 2010. A recent CDC analysis discusses this growing epidemic and suggested measures for prevention.

A Public Health Epidemic

Photo: Prescription pill bottlesThe problem of prescription painkiller overdoses has reached epidemic proportions.

Consider that:

  • Prescription painkiller overdoses killed nearly 15,000 people in the US in 2008. This is more than 3 times the 4,000 people killed by these drugs in 1999.
  • In 2010, about 12 million Americans (age 12 or older) reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers in the past year.
  • Nearly half a million emergency department visits in 2009 were due to people misusing or abusing prescription painkillers.
  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.

Groups at Greatest Risk

Certain groups are more likely to abuse or overdose on prescription painkillers:

  • Many more men than women die of overdoses from prescription painkillers.
  • Middle-aged adults have the highest prescription painkiller overdose rates.
  • People in rural counties are about two times as likely to overdose on prescription painkillers as people in big cities.
  • Whites and American Indian or Alaska Natives are more likely to overdose on prescription painkillers.
  • About 1 in 10 American Indian or Alaska Natives age 12 or older used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons in the past year, compared to 1 in 20 whites and 1 in 30 blacks.

Steps for Safety

There are steps that everyone can take to help prevent overdoses involving prescription painkillers, while making sure patients have access to safe, effective treatment.

States can:

  • Start or improve prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs), which are electronic databases that track all prescriptions for painkillers in the state.
  • Use PDMP, Medicaid, and workers' compensation data to identify improper prescribing of painkillers.
  • Set up programs for Medicaid, workers' compensation programs, and state-run health plans that identify and address improper patient use of painkillers.
  • Pass, enforce and evaluate pill mill, doctor shopping and other laws to reduce prescription painkiller abuse.
  • Encourage professional licensing boards to take action against inappropriate prescribing.
  • Increase access to substance abuse treatment.

Individuals can:

  • Use prescription painkillers only as directed by a health care provider.
  • Make sure they are the only one to use their prescription painkillers. Not selling or sharing them with others helps prevent misuse and abuse.
  • Store prescription painkillers in a secure place and dispose of them properly.*
  • Get help for substance abuse problems if needed (1-800-662-HELP).

Health insurers can:

  • Set up prescription claims review programs to identify and address improper prescribing and use of painkillers.
  • Increase coverage for other treatments to reduce pain, such as physical therapy, and for substance abuse treatment.

Photo: A healthcare provider discussing prescription medicine with a patient.Health care providers can:

  • Follow guidelines for responsible painkiller prescribing, including
    • Screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems.
    • Prescribing painkillers only when other treatments have not been effective for pain.
    • Prescribing only the quantity of painkillers needed based on the expected length of pain.
    • Using patient-provider agreements combined with urine drug tests for people using prescription painkillers long term.
    • Talking with patients about safely using, storing and disposing of prescription painkillers.*
  • Use PDMPs to identify patients who are improperly using prescription painkillers.

* Information on the proper storage and disposal of medications can be found at www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/ Poisoning/preventiontips.htm.

More Information

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  • Page last reviewed: November 1, 2011
  • Page last updated: February 15, 2012
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