Prescription Painkillers Can Be Fatal

Narcotic painkiller overdoses are rising

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Painkillers are prescribed to ease a patient's suffering. But millions of Americans are misusing prescription painkillers, resulting in an epidemic of fatal overdoses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of deaths from prescription painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, Opana, and methadone is greater than the death tally from cocaine and heroin combined. In a new report, CDC recommends changes in the way prescription painkillers are prescribed, while ensuring access to those who need them.

"Use prescription painkillers according to your doctor's instructions."

The CDC report, titled “Prescription Painkiller Overdoses in the US” says that enough painkillers were prescribed last year to medicate each American around the clock. 12 million Americans, aged 12 or older, reported non-medical use of prescription painkillers.

The pills are originally prescribed for a medical purpose. But they can easily end up in the hands of those who misuse or abuse them. Narcotic painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin are opiates. They're safe to use as directed by a physician after an operation, for example. But they can become highly addictive if abused.

There is a high risk of overdose associated with narcotic painkillers. Opiates slow down breathing, and excessive use can shut down the respiratory system altogether, causing death.

At a press conference on the topic covered by NPR, CDC director Thomas Frieden places blame for the epidemic on irresponsible doctors who prescribe painkillers freely.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske is working to fight prescription drug abuse. At the press conference, he reported that 48 states are setting up Prescription Drug Management Programs that identify doctors and patients who prescribe and use excessive amounts of opiate painkillers.

Another problem is what's called "doctor shopping" - patients get prescriptions from more than one doctor. Some states have alerts go out to doctors when patients fill an alarming number of painkiller prescriptions.

Deaths from prescription painkillers have significantly increased during the past decade, according to the CDC. In 2008, 15,000 people died as a result of painkiller overdoses, three times as many as in 1999.

Prescription painkiller abuse is more prevalent in certain groups than others. Men are more likely than women to abuse this class of drugs, and middle-aged adults have the highest rates of prescription painkiller overdoses. It also breaks down by state: Florida has the highest rate of prescription painkiller sales, while Illinois had the lowest.

Part of the problem is that more prescription painkillers are being prescribed than ever before. The amount of prescription painkillers sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors' offices was four times higher in 2010 than in 1999.

If you have a prescription for painkillers, make sure that you're the only one using that prescription, and use the drugs only as directed by your doctor. If you have a problem with substance abuse, or know someone who does, seek help.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 7, 2011
Last Updated:
November 8, 2011