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Drugs found in the medicine chest are claiming more women's lives than cocaine and heroin. (iStockphoto.com)

A Surge In Painkiller Overdoses Among Women

Jul 3, 2013

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Women are dying from overdoses of prescription painkillers at a much higher rate than men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while men still suffer more overdoses, women are catching up fast.

From 1999 to 2010, the CDC found a fivefold increase in the number and rate of such cases among middle-aged women. Over the same period, the rate of overdoses from prescription painkillers increased 3.5 times in men.

"In 2010, more than 6,600 women died from prescription painkillers — four times as many as died from cocaine and heroin combined," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a media briefing.

Older women between the ages of 45 and 54 — were at highest risk of abusing pain medication. The CDC released the findings Tuesday. It has tracked the relationship between painkiller use and overdoses for years.

Pain specialist Lynn Webster, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, women often have an array of different medications at home that can be dangerous or deadly, if taken in combination.

"They're often stereotyped as being more emotional and psychological," Webster said. "The first line of therapy often is a sedative that treats emotional side as opposed to the pain."

The CDC has called for greater public and medical community awareness of the risk. Pain specialists note there are other ways to treat chronic pain symptoms, but often these methods, such as acupuncture and cognitive therapy, aren't covered by insurance.

Here are some takeaways from the CDC report.


Loads of Pills for the Nation's Pain

In 2010, enough opioid pain relievers were sold to medicate every adult in the United States every 4 hours for a month.

More Women In The Hospital

The death rate for pain pill overdose is higher for men than women, but over the last 20 years more women wound up in the hospital after overdoses.

Pain And Women

The CDC found women more often than men report common forms of pain experienced for longer periods of time. Women also reportedly felt the pain more intensely. That may be why women are more likely than men to be prescribed pain pills at higher doses, and to use them on a regular basis.

Unsafe Shopping

When a doctor refuses to prescribe pain pills, women often search for a different physician who will write them a prescription.


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A Deadly Trend

2005: 2007:
  • The Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory warning nursing mothers to use caution when taking codeine, the painkiller most widely used after childbirth.
2010:
  • A West Virginia ER doctor studied the rates of poisoning from prescription pain killers and found incidence jumped 65 percent between 1999 and 2006.
2011:
  • Between 15 and 20 percent of patient visits with physicians the U.S. include a prescription for an opioid.

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