Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to site content Skip directly to page options
CDC Home

CDC Injury Center: Director's View Blog

The purpose of this blog is to foster public discussion about injury and violence prevention and response and gain perspectives of those we serve.

Share
Compartir

Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States: Blog Q&A

Categories: CDC Injury Center, Home & Recreational Safety

Photo: woman looking into medicine cabinet containing prescription drugsGuest blogger: Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, MPH, LCDR, U.S. Public Health Service

How big a problem is prescription drug overdose?

We see the country’s surging number of deaths involving prescription drugs as an epidemic. In 2008, the most recent year for which we have national figures, more than 36,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S., and more than 20,000 of these overdose deaths were from prescription drugs. We have seen this number steadily increase over the last decade.

A specific class of prescription drugs known as prescription painkillers—also called opioid pain relievers and including drugs such as OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), and methadone—is driving this increase. In 2008, nearly 15,000 people died from overdoses involving these drugs. This is more than three times the number of people who died from these drugs in 1999.  

Why has the rate of prescription drug overdose risen so sharply?

In the last decade, sales of these drugs have increased 300%. This increase has been paralleled by increases in abuse and overdose of these drugs. These trends are all connected. Last year, nearly one in 20 people in the U.S. age 12 or over reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically—without a prescription, or for the “high” they cause. In 2009, there were nearly half a million emergency department visits due to the misuse or abuse of these drugs. It is this pattern—increased sales and increased abuse—that has lead to the current epidemic.

Are there any groups that are most at-risk for prescription painkiller overdose?

While we have seen prescription painkiller overdoses impacting families and communities across the country, certain groups are especially vulnerable. As is the case with the abuse of other drugs, men are more likely to overdose on prescription painkillers than women. Middle-aged adults, particularly those ages 34-55, have the highest rates of overdose. We also know that whites and American Indians and Alaska Natives, as well as people who have substance abuse or other mental health problems, have higher rates of overdose compared to other groups.

Are all states equally impacted by the drug overdose epidemic?

No. Rates of drug overdose vary significantly between states. For instance, the state with the highest rate of overdose, New Mexico, has a rate nearly five-times higher than the state with the lowest rate, Nebraska. We generally see the highest rates of overdose deaths in the Southwest and in the Appalachian states like Kentucky and West Virginia. We can’t say exactly why there is such variation among states, but we do know people in rural counties are about two times more likely to overdose on prescription painkillers than people in big cities. And our analysis shows that some of the states that saw the largest increases in overdose deaths between 1999 and 2008 were states that had some of the highest poverty levels among non-Hispanic whites. In addition, differences in prescribing habits among states may also be contributing to state variation.

What policies can help reduce deaths from prescription drug overdose?

Efforts to reduce prescription drug overdose must strike a balance between preventing deaths and safeguarding legitimate access to pain medications. Everyone has a role to play in reducing the number of overdoses in the United States including the federal government, state and local governments, health care providers, health insurers, communities, and individuals. CDC believes that if we can improve how these powerful drugs are prescribed, we can reduce the number of people who are abusing and overdosing on prescription painkillers, while ensuring people who have legitimate pain are treated safely and effectively.

Two promising policies are prescription drug monitoring programs and patient review and restriction programs. Prescription drug monitoring programs—which track controlled substance medications in a state—are a tool used by healthcare providers to identify patients who may be at risk for an overdose. Patient review and restriction programs require patients who are inappropriately using controlled substances to receive them only from one physician and one pharmacy. Both of these programs can improve patient care while also helping to reduce abuse and overdose. 

What is CDC doing about prescription drug overdose?

CDC is working with many federal and state partners, as well as stakeholder organizations, to address this epidemic. CDC is specifically focusing on three key areas: enhancing public health surveillance so that we can better understand the epidemic; strengthening policy by identifying, evaluating, and disseminating promising policies designed to reduce overdose; and improving the clinical practice of health care providers.   

What steps can people take to prevent prescription drug overdose?

The most important thing is to take prescription painkillers only as directed by a health care provider. Individuals should not share or sell them to others. More than half of the people in the U.S. who use a prescription pain reliever nonmedically obtained it for free from a friend or relative. People should also make sure to store their prescriptions securely and to dispose of unused medications properly. Finally, people who are struggling with substance abuse problems should get help, for instance by contacting 1-800-662-HELP.

How and where can people learn more?

For more information, people can visit CDC’s unintentional poisoning web site.

 

Dr. Jones is one of two lead subject matter experts on prescription drug overdose in the Injury Center’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. He is a pharmacist and public health practitioner by training and primarily focuses his prescription drug overdose work on strategic policy development and implementation, engaging national and state partners, and conducting research to improve policy and clinical practice.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. January 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm ET  -   Fraser Cottee

    I think the reason is doctors are handing out drugs like candy, people need to harden up, but on the other hand i also think perhaps life is more stressful now days and everybody is run into the ground and more likely to get sick, depressed etc, maybe the answer is to look at life a little different, it doesnt need to be hard, and stop going to the doc when you catch a cold, it takes 5 days to get over it with or without drugs…

    Link to this comment

  2. January 7, 2012 at 11:38 pm ET  -   Eddie

    It baffles me that sales of these drugs have increased 300%. in the last 10 years. the need to have strict procedures to ween abusive behavior and keep Security at a maximum.

    Link to this comment

  3. January 8, 2012 at 7:50 am ET  -   Chris Crawford

    perhaps the solution to this problem relies on docters to diagnose patients they think are potentially at risk and when prescription medicine is needed only proscribing minimal amounts so perhaps making patients only allowed to get more drugs every second day or something like that, just a thought

    Link to this comment

  4. January 9, 2012 at 4:50 am ET  -   Alex

    The most important thing is to take prescription painkillers only as directed by a health care provider. Individuals should not share or sell them to others. medicine24h.com More than half of the people in the U.S. who use a prescription pain reliever nonmedically obtained it for free from a friend or relative. True!

    Link to this comment

  5. January 12, 2012 at 3:09 am ET  -   Tom

    Nice article, I appreciate the truth. The fight against drugs is no joke and should not be taken lightly.

    Link to this comment

  6. February 13, 2012 at 1:28 am ET  -   Sheree

    This info has been extremely inlightening. I agree that this issues should not be taken lightly and doctors should not prescribe pain killers so freely. Also the qty dispensed should be less to prevent the unused pills from being past on to another person. Also patients using painkillers should be in a data base to prevent doctor shopping and usage of multiple drug stores. Closer monitoring would reduce abuse and deaths.

    Link to this comment

  7. February 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm ET  -   NM Architect

    It’s disheartening (though not surprising) to read that in New Mexico where I live and work, the rate of drug overdose is the highest in the nation. In our case at least, prescription drug abuse may represent more than just a problem for US public health policy. Customs and border enforcement (or the failure of enforcement) are also critical issues. The drugs mentioned above (OxyContin , Vicodin, and Methadone) as “driving the problem” are all very much more easily available across the border.

    Link to this comment

  8. March 8, 2012 at 5:11 am ET  -   killer01

    I salute you for the knowledge you shared. The most important thing is to take prescription painkillers only as directed by a health care provider.

    Link to this comment

  9. March 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm ET  -   Steve

    It is a shame to see our country taper off in terms of health. First it was obesity and now it is drug abuse. What is next?

    Link to this comment

  10. April 16, 2012 at 9:44 am ET  -   Sheev

    Drug overdosing is a huge issue area. Doctors need to stops handing out prescription drugs out like they are candy. The fact that in 2008 alone, there were more than 36,000 people that died from drug overdoses in the U.S., and more than 20,000 of those overdose deaths were from prescription drugs clearly shows that this problem is a public health issue that has to be addressed immediately. I appreciate the CDC for working with federal and state partners in addressing the three key areas for solving this problem: enhancing public health surveillance so that we can better understand the epidemic; strengthening policy by identifying, evaluating, and disseminating promising policies designed to reduce overdose; and improving the clinical practice of health care providers.

    Link to this comment

  11. May 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm ET  -   dav321

    Many street drugs have no therapeutic benefits. Any use of these drugs is a form of drug abuse. Drug interactions may also produce adverse effects. Therefore, it is important to let our doctor know about all the drugs we are taking, including vitamins and other over-the-counter medications.

    Link to this comment

  12. May 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm ET  -   Hildred Smith

    It is very important to get health experts advices especially when we talk about taking medicines and drugs and their appropriate dosage. Health is wealth so we must take care of it.

    Link to this comment

  13. June 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm ET  -   Accutrack auto shop software

    Pain management is one of many conditions people get meds to improve their condition. Doctors prescribe their meds but can’t control the dosage the patient goes by at home. We should have a support system for these patients. But who are we at judging someones pain?

    Link to this comment

  14. July 9, 2012 at 7:33 am ET  -   Joe

    I appreciate the CDC for working with federal and state partners in addressing the three key areas for solving this problem: enhancing public health surveillance so that we can better understand the epidemic; strengthening policy by identifying, evaluating, and disseminating promising policies designed to reduce overdose; and improving the clinical practice of health care providers. medicine24h.com

    Link to this comment

  15. August 17, 2012 at 7:32 am ET  -   John Howard

    Drug overdoses can involve people of any age. It is most common in very young children (from crawling age to about 5 years) and among teenagers to those in their mid-30s.

    Link to this comment

  16. October 31, 2012 at 10:13 am ET  -   10.31.12 : DutyShirker

    [...] 56% Of Drug Overdoses Are From Legal Drugs [...]

    Link to this comment

  17. November 1, 2012 at 6:19 am ET  -   Brianbrooks

    The rate of these drugs death has risen these days and the recommendation is nice that not to take these extra dose as they an harm.Thanks for these recommendations as these are helpful to overcome this problem.

    Link to this comment

  18. May 4, 2013 at 7:16 pm ET  -   R. Dwight Brewster

    The prescription drug overdose problem here in Canada closely mirrors that in the United States, and although I haven’t been able to find the data on the StatsCan or Health Canada web-sites, it seems from anecdotal evidence that similar demographic groups are more at risk, namely: aboriginals, other Northerners, and urban caucasian males.
    I do wondr about some of the (possible) root causes, and some (possible) bias, inconsistencies, and/or incorrect assumptions; I wonder if a number of ‘accidental’ overdoses by chronic non-cancer pain patients using long-term opiod therapy & benzodiazepines are not actually suicides; I also wonder if the ridiculous amounts paid by welfare (in Canada, at leat) to those who are disabled and in pain (but whose pain medication is paid for) is not a major contributor to the amount of prescription medication making it onto the street.
    As a disabled vet, I have no real financial hardship becase of Veterans’ Affairs & Canadian Forces pensions, and my dose of morphine is low enough to keep me from ever giving any away, or selling it; if my income were decreased to $750/month (which is ~1/3 of a living wage here), and I still had children to provide for, I would not find it hard to use cheap alcohol and/over-counter medicines (e.g. Benadryl, Gravol) to increase the effectiveness of the POA, sell some pills and put up with more pain so that I could feed and clothe my kids. I am thankful not to have to make that choice.

    Link to this comment

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments and expect that any comments will be respectful. This is a moderated blog and your comments will be reviewed before they are posted. Read more about our comment policy »

* All fields are required

Name will be visible to all users E-mail is confidential and will remain hidden
You can add a handful of basic html tags to your comment. The commenting function supports the following tags:
<b> <i> <a href=""> <strong> <em> <abbr title=""> <acronym title="">

All comments posted become a part of the public domain, and users are responsible for their comments. This is a moderated blog and your comments will be reviewed before they are posted. Read more about our comment policy »

 
USA.gov: The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention   1600 Clifton Rd. Atlanta, GA 30333, USA
800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) TTY: (888) 232-6348 - Contact CDC–INFO
A-Z Index
  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z
  27. #