CDC Reports Dramatic Rise in Prescription Painkiller Overdose Deaths

Overdose deaths linked to the use of prescription painkillers have spiked in recent years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In fact, fatal overdoses from <"">hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone, now outpace those involving heroine and cocaine combined.

According to the CDC, a staggering 1 in 20 people in the in the U.S., ages 12 and older, used prescription painkillers nonmedically (without a prescription or just for the “high” they cause) in 2010. The CDC also found that:

• Nearly 15,000 people in the U.S. died because of a prescription painkiller overdose in 2008. This is more than 3 times the 4,000 people killed by these drugs in 1999.

• In 2009, nearly half a million emergency department visits 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.

According to the agency’s analysis, men are more likely to die from an overdose of prescription painkiller compared to women. Age wise, prescription painkiller overdoses are more likely to take the lives of middle-aged adults. The problem is more prevalent in rural areas, and among whites and American Indian or Alaska Natives, the CDC said.

“The unfortunate and in fact shocking news is that we are in the midst of an epidemic of prescription drug overdose in this country. It is an epidemic but it can be stopped,” CDC chief Thomas Frieden said in a statement announcing the agency’s findings.

“Now the burden of dangerous drugs is being created more by a few irresponsible doctors than by drug pushers on street corners.”

Prescription painkillers, including hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone, are highly addictive and people can build up tolerance quickly.

“What happens in a lot of this population is they take the medication for something like knee pain, or surgery,” Michael Lowenstein, a doctor treats patients at a pain clinic in Los Angeles, California, told the AFP news service.

“The problem is it takes more and more medication to maintain that response so someone will be given two or three or four Vicodin to treat their pain and before you know it they are taking 20 and 30 and 40 Vicodin a day,” he added.

Lowenstein was not involved in the CDC study.

In its report, the CDC advised tracking prescription patterns, tracking overdoses, and limiting reimbursements to reduce inappropriate prescribing, in order to curb abuse. However, the agency noted that care must also be taken to ensure those who have a legitimate need for prescription painkillers have access to the drugs.

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