Painkiller Overdose Deaths Increase 400% in Women

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The percentage of U.S. women overdosing on prescription painkillers has increased sharply in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between 1999 and 2010, the proportion of deaths from painkiller overdose increased 400 percent among women, while rising 265 percent among men.

“Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said at a news conference today (July 2). "Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying of overdoses at rates we have never seen before," Frieden said.

While men remain more likely to die of a prescription painkiller overdose, deaths among women have increased at a higher rate, and are catching up to those of men, Frieden said.

In 2010, more than 6,600 women died from prescription painkiller overdose, which is four times the number of women who died from cocaine and heroin overdoses combined, the CDC says. Most of these deaths are accidental. The death rate was highest among women ages 45 to 54.

There were also more than 200,000 emergency department visits for opioid abuse among women in that year.

Research suggests women are more likely to experience chronic pain and migraines, and to be prescribed prescription painkillers than men, the CDC says. Women may also become dependent on the drugs more quickly than men, the agency said.  

Because women often weigh less than men, they may experience life-threatening events at lower doses of painkillers, Frieden said.

Rates of death from prescription painkiller overdose have increased at the same time as prescriptions for the drugs have increased. "These are dangerous medications," Frieden said. "In many other situations, the risks fair outweigh the benefits."

People should take prescription drugs only as directed by their health care provider, and discuss all the medications they are taking with their doctor. Because taking opioids during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born with a drug addiction, women should speak with their doctor about their pregnancy plans before taking the medications.

Health care providers should "recognize that women can be at risk for prescription painkiller overdose. It's not just a problem among men," Frieden said.

Doctors should monitor patients for drug abuse and mental health problems, and discuss all pain treatment options, including those that do not involve prescription drugs, the CDC says. Doctors can also use prescription drug monitoring programs, which are databases that keep track of patients' prescriptions, to help identify people who may be using prescription drugs improperly.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.