Alarming Rise in Prescription Drug Overdoses

The U.S. is currently facing an epidemic of deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 75 people die every day from drug overdoses.  More than 90% of all poisoning deaths are attributed to unintentional drug overdoses that occur during drug abuse and due to taking too much of a prescribed medication.

The number of deaths from drug overdoses more than doubled between 1999 and 2007, from about 12,000 to more than 28,000 per year.   In 2007, fatal drug overdoses were second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the general population.  For those aged 35 to 54, they caused more deaths than car accidents.

Most of these deaths are caused by opioid pain medications (oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone), followed by cocaine and heroin.  The increase in deaths for prescription drug overdoses coincides with a 500% increase in the number of prescriptions for opioid pain killers being written in the past 10 years.  There has also been a fivefold increase in the number of admissions to substance abuse programs for opioid addiction.  In 2009 alone, more than 200 million opioid drug prescriptions were written in the U.S.

Although prescription pain killers like oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocone (Vicodin) are more effective than ever in reducing chronic pain symptoms, they are also associated with high rates of abuse.  According to a report from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, at some point in their lifetime 1 in 4 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 will abuse these prescription drugs.

Unintentional poisoning by prescriptions drugs cuts across all income levels and geographic areas, affecting celebrities like Anna Nicole Smith and Heath Ledger as well as people who live in rural areas that traditionally have been unaffected by drug abuse.  The highest death rates for prescription drug overdose occur in the Southwest and in the Appalachian region.

The CDC calls the current prescription drug situation a “public health crisis” that must be addressed by education and enforcement.  Its recommendations include more training for health care providers in the area of pain management and drug addiction.  A large portion of the opioid prescriptions written for young adults are provided by dentists, a segment of the health care profession that may need more education about alternative treatments for pain.  When prescription opioid drugs are prescribed, patients need to be monitored for signs of abuse.  In addition, the public needs more education about the risks and dangers of sharing prescription drugs with friends and family members or leaving them unsecured in bathroom cabinets.

State and federal agencies need to monitor the inappropriate use of prescription drugs and limit access for patients who receive prescriptions from multiple doctors.  Treatment for prescription drug addiction has been shown to work; it should be made available to those who need it.