Women in the US are dying from prescription drug overdose at record rates: a new study found that this death rate has increased five-fold in the last decade, and the CDC now calls this a growing public health epidemic.
“Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying at rates that we have never seen before,” said Centers of Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who led a study analyzing the extent of prescription drug overdose.
The study found that men are still more likely to die of overdoses than women, but the number of female deaths spiked drastically. Eighteen women currently die from prescription drug overdose each day. From 1999 to 2010, the rate of overdose fatalities among women increased by 400 percent, leading to 15,300 deaths in 2010. Among men the rate increased by 250 percent.
By 2010, 40 percent of all overdose deaths were women, most of them middle-aged who took prescription painkillers. The CDC found that women ages 45 to 54 were most likely to ingest a fatal dose of prescription drugs, followed closely by women ages 55 to 64.
“Unfortunately, women are catching up in this regard,” Frieden told reporters during a conference call. Researchers believe that 70 percent of overdose deaths were unintentional. About 12 percent of overdose deaths were labeled as suicides.
The study’s authors hypothesized that women are more likely than men to be prescribed painkillers, use them chronically, and acquire prescriptions for higher doses – in part because women are more susceptible to chronic pain such as fibromyalgia, a condition of widespread pain throughout the body.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the New York Times that women are also more likely to be given psychotherapeutic drugs to treat depression and anxiety, which could interfere with other medications and sometimes lead to death.
Women typically also have smaller body masses than men, making them more susceptible to overdose. They are also more likely to “doctor shop” and acquire pain pills from multiple physicians, CDC officials told AP. The CDC report particularly focused on prescription opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Opana.
“These are dangerous medications and they should be reserved for situations like severe cancer pain,” Frieden said. “In many other situations, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Prescribing an opiate may be condemning a patient to lifelong addiction and life-threatening complications.”
Drug overdoses now kill more US women than car accidents, cervical cancer or homicide, and Frieden believes doctors should consider the possibility of addiction and think of alternative treatments for chronic pain before prescribing opioids.
“Stopping this epidemic in women – and men – is everyone’s business,” Frieden said in a statement. “Doctors need to be cautious about prescribing and patients about using these drugs.”