US Drug Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise: Here Are the Numbers to Know

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The rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States continues to rise, with a particularly sharp spike in heroin-related deaths in recent years, according to a new report.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the rate of U.S. drug overdose deaths more than doubled over a 16-year period, increasing from about 6 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 16 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, according to the report.

The drug overdose death rate increased by about 10 percent per year from 1999 to 2006, and then continued to increase but at a slower rate, rising 3 percent per year from 2006 to 2013. Then, the rate sped up again, rising by 9 percent per year from 2013 to 2015.

In recent years, the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving heroin underwent a sharp rise. In 2010, only 8 percent of all drug overdose deaths involved heroin, but by 2015, 25 percent involved heroin, the report said.

The researchers also found that the percentage of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and tramadol, more than doubled during that time period, increasing from 8 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2015.

"The continuing rise in death rates related to heroin use and synthetic opioids is of great concern," said Dr. Larissa Mooney, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the university's Addiction Medicine Clinic.

This increase occurred despite growing awareness of the opioid epidemic and a rise in funding for opioid addiction treatment, said Mooney, who was not involved in the research. The new report "highlights an ongoing problem in that area," she told Live Science. [America's Opioid-Use Epidemic: 5 Startling Facts]

The CDC researchers could not determine from their data the reason for the rise in drug overdose deaths. But previous studies have found that the recent increase in drug overdose deaths has occurred alongside an increase in prescriptions for opioid pain relievers. And other research has shown that some people who become addicted to prescription opioids will switch to heroin, which can be less expensive and sometimes easier to obtain, Mooney said. [10 Interesting Facts About Heroin]

Although the percentage of overdose deaths from heroin is rising, the percentage of deaths from some types of prescription opioids, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, has declined slightly, dropping from 29 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2010 to 24 percent in 2015, the report said. The percentage of overdose deaths from methadone also dropped during this period, decreasing from 12 percent of drug overdose deaths in 2010 to 6 percent in 2015.

The report also found the following:

  • In 2015, the highest rate of drug overdose deaths was among people ages 45 to 54, with a rate of 30 deaths per 100,000 people.
  • Adults ages 55 to 64 saw the biggest increase in drug overdose deaths over the course of the 16-year study period. From 1999 to 2015, the rate of drug overdose deaths in this age group increased from about 4 deaths per 100,000 people to about 22 deaths per 100,000 people.
  • During the 16-year study period, the rate of overdose deaths among white people nearly quadrupled, from 6 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 21 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015.
  • Overdose death rates also increased among black people, from 7.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 12 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015; and among Hispanic people, the rate increased from 5 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015.
  • The state with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2015 was West Virginia, with a rate of 41 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by New Hampshire, with a rate of 34 deaths per 100,000 people, and Kentucky and Ohio, both of which had about 30 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.

Last year, the CDC introduced new guidelines for prescribing opioid painkillers, with an aim of reducing the risk of addiction and overdose tied to these drugs.

Efforts to reduce overdose deaths should also focus on increasing access to evidenced-based treatments for substance use disorders, Mooney said. There should also be a focus on screening people for substance use disorders so that people can be guided into treatment, Mooney said.

"The earlier that we can intervene in the course of the problem, the better the chances of providing that access to effective treatment and reducing some of the harms" of addiction, Mooney said.

Original article on Live Science.

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.