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Curbing the Growing Epidemic of Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in Women

Categories: Home & Recreational Safety

Every 3 minutes, a woman goes to the emergency department for prescription painkiller misuse or abuse.Do you know which of the following statements is TRUE about women and prescription painkillers?   
  1. Medical providers are more likely to prescribe higher doses of painkillers for women than men, and that women are more likely to have chronic pain.
  2. Women use prescription painkillers for longer periods of time and may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men.
  3. Female patients are more likely to have multiple medical providers to prescribe painkillers than male patients do.

Did you guess all of the above? You would be right.   

In the U.S., millions of women suffer from pain and are in need of safe, effective pain treatment.  Women and their health care providers need to understand the risks and benefits associated with prescription painkillers and understand that there are solutions to prevent misuse, abuse, and even death.     

Although men are more likely to die of prescription painkiller overdoses, in 2010 about 18 women died every day of a prescription painkiller overdose. For every woman who died of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 went to the emergency department for painkiller misuse or abuse. The good news is that improving the way painkillers are prescribed and used can help decrease the growing rate of overdoses, while making sure women have access to safe, effective pain treatment.   


Prescription painkiller overdoses killed 5 times as many women in 2010 as in 1999.

What can women do?   

  • Discuss all medications they are taking (including over-the-counter) with their health care providers.
  • Use prescription drugs only as directed by a health care provider, and store them in a secure place.
  • Dispose of medications properly, as soon as the course of treatment is done. Do not keep prescription medications around “just in case.”
  • Help prevent misuse and abuse by not selling or sharing prescription drugs. Never use another person’s prescription drugs.
  • Discuss pregnancy plans with their health care provider before taking prescription painkillers.
  • Get help for substance abuse problems (1-800-662-HELP). Call Poison Help (1-800-222-1222) if you have questions about medicines.


What can health care providers do?   

  • Recognize that women can be at risk of prescription drug misuse and overdose.
  • Discuss pain treatment options, and only prescribe prescription painkillers when they are the best option.   
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of taking prescription painkillers, especially during pregnancy. This includes taking painkillers for chronic pain.
  • Follow guidelines for responsible prescribing, including: screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems; prescribing only the quantity needed based on appropriate pain diagnosis; using patient-provider agreements combined with urine drug tests for people using prescription painkillers long term; and teaching patients how to safely use, store, and dispose of drugs.
  • Avoiding combinations of prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium) unless there is a specific medical indication.
  • Talk with pregnant women who are dependent on prescription painkillers about treatment options, such as opioid agonist therapy.
  • Using prescription drug monitoring programs to identify patients who may be improperly obtaining or using prescription painkillers and other drugs.


How would you start to change prescribing prescription painkillers practices for female patients?

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