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Saving Lives and Protecting People: Preventing Prescription Painkiller Overdoses

Overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the past decade, largely because of prescription painkillers. The stories are tragic: A father whose addiction to prescription painkillers ended in a fatal overdose. A teen who died after taking prescription painkillers stolen from a friend’s grandmother. Nine members of one small community who overdosed on painkillers they got from pain clinics.

From 1999 through 2011, the rate for prescription painkiller deaths almost quadrupled. In 2012, the rate declined slightly, and remained at 5.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013. However, prescription painkiller overdose is still a big problem. In 2013, more people died of overdose from prescription painkillers than from illegal drugs.5

Overdose deaths are only part of the problem—for each death involving prescription painkillers, hundreds of people abuse or misuse these drugs1:

  • Emergency department visits for prescription painkiller abuse or misuse have doubled in the past 5 years to nearly half a million.3
  • About 12 million American teens and adults reported using prescription painkillers to get “high” or for other nonmedical reasons.4
  • Nonmedical use of prescription painkillers costs more than $72.5 billion each year in direct health care costs.2

For every 1 overdose death from prescription painkillers there are1

Photo: prescription pill bottle with pills spilling out
  • 10 treatment admissions for abuse
  • 32 emergency department visits for misuse or abuse
  • 130 people who abuse or are dependent
  • 825 people who take prescription painkillers for nonmedical use

In the United States

  Man taking prescription pills

  • Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for one month.
  • Although most of these pills were prescribed for a medical purpose, many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them.1

Putting Science into Action to Prevent Prescription Painkiller Overdoses

For more than 20 years, CDC’s Injury Center has helped protect Americans from violence and injury threats. We are the nation’s leading authority on violence and injury. We study violence and injuries and research the best ways to prevent them, applying science for real-world solutions to keep people safe, healthy, and productive.

Preventing prescription painkiller overdoses is one of the Injury Center’s focus areas. Here are just a few examples of our efforts to address this growing issue:

Improving Systems to Track Prescriptions and Identify Misuse

Photo: doctors looking at medical recordsThe Injury Center is researching ways to enhance state prescription drug monitoring programs, which track prescriptions for controlled substances (such as prescription painkillers). In addition, we are collaborating to improve federal data systems and to link state data and electronic medical records. Improved systems will provide better science to guide prevention efforts.

Identifying Prevention Policies and Programs that Work

 Photo: doctor writing a prescriptionThe Injury Center is tracking and evaluating state policies and programs, like those to prevent “doctor shopping” and “pill mills.” Such policies and programs can prevent prescription painkiller misuse and overdose while ensuring access to safe, effective pain treatment for those who need it. Effective policies and programs can serve as models for other states.

Increasing Health Care Provider Accountability

 Photo: Doctor writing a prescriptionThe Injury Center is promoting efforts to ensure that health care providers follow science-based guidelines for safe and effective prescribing of painkillers. The increase in overdose deaths parallels a sharp rise in the sale of prescription painkillers.1 We are tracking trends in prescribing rates and daily doses, studying differences from state to state, and identifying patterns of improper prescribing behaviors. Identifying health care providers who prescribe painkillers inappropriately could reduce overdoses and misuse.

Educating Health Care Providers, Policy Makers, and the Public

 Cover image from the Policy Impact publication

CDC’s Injury Center is committed to saving lives, protecting people, and lowering the health and societal costs of prescription painkiller overdoses and misuse. Our goal is to offer states, health care providers, professional organizations, and the public timely, accurate information and useful tools and resources to address this rapidly growing problem. Take action today by learning more about ways you can protect yourself and others from prescription painkiller overdoses!

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs: Overdoses of Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers—United States, 1999–2008. MMWR 2011; 60: 1–6.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vital Signs: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the U.S. (November 2011)[accessed 2011 Nov 1]. Available from:

  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Drug Abuse Warning Network: Selected Tables of National Estimates of Drug-related Emergency Department Visits. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, SAMHSA; 2010.

  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume 1: Summary of National Findings. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies; 2011. Available from URL:

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Vital Statistics System mortality data. (2015) Available from URL: