Drug Overdose Deaths a Problem in US

Overdose death rates from opioid pain relievers and heroin have risen in US during recent decades

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Some medications that were created to help people heal can do major harm when abused. A new report found that death rates from some painkillers and other drugs may be on the rise.

The study, led by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that death rates from drug overdoses have increased in the US in recent years.

Opioid pain relievers, including hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin), oxycodone (brand name OxyContin) and morphine, may be prescribed for painful conditions, injuries or surgeries. 

The study authors, led by Rose A. Rudd, MSPH, of CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, used mortality (death) data reported to CDC from 28 state departments across the US. Rudd and team then used population data to estimate national annual death rates from both opioid pain relievers and other drugs, including heroin.

The researchers found that heroin overdose death rates doubled between 2010 and 2012 — jumping from a rate of 1.0 deaths per 100,000 people to 2.1 deaths. Heroin overdoses accounted for an estimated 3,635 deaths in 2012.

When considering opioid pain relievers, Rudd and colleagues found that between 1999 and 2010, overdose deaths from these medications saw a big increase, before starting to decline. Between 2010 and 2012, opioid pain reliever deaths dropped 6.6 percent — from a rate of 6.0 deaths per 100,000 people (or an estimated 10,247 deaths) to 5.6 per 100,000 people (an estimated 9,869 deaths).

However, the overall death rate from drug overdoses of all sorts increased between 2010 and 2012 — from 13.0 deaths per 100,000 people to 13.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

"The small decline in [opioid pain reliever] overdose mortality is encouraging given its steep increase during 1999–2010, but efforts to address opioid abuse need to continue to further reduce overdose mortality and avoid further enlarging the number of [opioid pain reliever] users who might use heroin when it is available," wrote Rudd and colleagues.

It is important to note that this study relied on death certificate data, which may include some misclassifications of deaths, and only drew from 28 of the 50 US states. Further research is needed to better understand the nature of drug overdose deaths in the US.

This study was published online in the October 3 issue of CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. No conflicts of interest were reported. 

Review Date: 
October 3, 2014
Last Updated:
October 8, 2014