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Painkiller overdose deaths spike among women

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

More women are dying from prescription painkiller overdoses than ever before, highlighting what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a growing public health epidemic.

The CDC study shows that while men are still more likely to die of overdoses, the number of deaths among women increased five-fold in the last decade, four times more than deaths in women from cocaine and heroin combined, said CDC director Tom Frieden. About 12 percent of these deaths were suicides, CDC experts said.

The rate of prescription drug overdose deaths of women increased 400 percent from 1999 to 2010, compared with an increase of 250 percent for men. More men die of prescription painkiller overdoses — about 23,000 in 2010, compared with 15,300 for women.

“Unfortunately, women are catching up in this regard,” Frieden said.

Women may be more prone to overdoses because they're more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed painkillers, have higher doses and use them longer than men, said Linda Degutis, director of CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. But doctors may not recognize these facts about women, said John Eadie, director of a Brandeis University program that tracks prescription-drug monitoring in the nation.

Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers skyrocketed during the past decade despite no major increases in the need for prescription painkillers during the past 20 years, said Chris Jones, a health scientist at CDC. Doctors are prescribing medications more frequently for patients who may not need them, a trend in the medical profession that needs to be reversed, Frieden said.

Women between 45 and 54 had the greatest increases in drug overdose deaths, likely because of dependence on prescription drugs to ease chronic pain, experts said.

A jump was noted in visits to hospital emergency rooms. Painkiller-related ER visits by women more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, the CDC found.

These numbers alone, however, may not tell the whole tale.

“If one looks carefully at the data, it can be quickly seen that the vast majority of prescription overdose deaths occur as a consequence of individuals combining these drugs with another sedative,” said Carl Hart, a Columbia University associate professor who studies drugs and behavior.

The solution to this prescription problem lies in maximizing prescription-monitoring programs, Frieden said.

Washington began one of the first such programs in 2007, allowing pharmacists to submit patient records of prescriptions, dosage, the dispenser and prescriber to the state's health department. Frieden says these programs can curb drug use by catching “doctor shoppers” and “pill mills,” but critics say the programs can be intrusive for conscientious clinicians and patients.

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