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Overdose Deaths From Prescription Painkillers Skyrocket

Prescription Drugs

Prescription painkillers can be a lifesaver if you suffer from chronic back pain or if you just had surgery such as an appendectomy. But for a growing number of Americans, the medications can be deadly.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in late April that every day in the United States, 44 people die from overdoses of prescription opioid drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids include the brand name drugs Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, and others. Hydrocodone products like Vicodin are the most commonly prescribed for painful conditions.

Between 1999 and 2013, most people who died from prescription opioid overdoses were ages 25 to 54, and a large majority were non-Hispanic whites, whose death rate increased 4.3 times in the time period. Even more striking was the rise in overdoses among adults ages 55 to 64: it was more than seven times higher in 2013 than in 1999. Men were more likely to die than women, but the gap is closing.

In 2013, drug overdoses were the leading cause of injury death. They killed more people ages 25 to 64 than car crashes, and more than half of those deaths involved prescription drugs.

The situation is dire in Utah. In 2012, an average of 21 Utah residents each month died as a result of prescription painkiller overdoses, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The spike in overdoses is the result of greater availability and abuse of these drugs during the past 20 years, says Elizabeth Howell, MD, an addiction specialist at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.

More doctors began prescribing higher doses of opioids to treat pain, she says. When OxyContin was introduced in 1995, "the floodgates opened."

"More opioid availability trickled down to the most vulnerable, the children and adolescents who obtained medications from their family members and took them, sold them and exposed others to prescription opioids," Howell says.

Most of Howell's patients with opioid addictions began with prescription painkillers, often in adolescence. When they could no longer afford or obtain the pills, many switched to heroin to stave off withdrawal, she says.

The brain's reward pathways don't know the difference between "hard" drugs and prescriptions, Howell says, but people can be more apt to minimize the risk of pills in their minds. "I think people may underestimate the addiction risk of prescription drugs," she says. "They should know that the risk of addiction to prescription opioids—and sedatives and stimulants—is just as high as for street drugs."