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More Women Dying From Rx Drug Overdoses

Painkiller deaths rise 400% among women. The CDC cals it a public health epidemic.


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By Chrisanne Grise


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The number of middle-aged women dying from prescription painkiller overdoses is rising at a staggering rate. The rate of overdoses among women is at the highest it has ever been, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is calling it a public health epidemic. While men are still more likely to die of an overdose, the rate of prescription drug overdose deaths of women increased 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared to a 250% increase for men. About 12% of the female deaths were suicides, while the majority are caused by mixing the drug with another sedative. Women between 45 and 54 had the greatest increases in Rx overdose deaths, and experts say women may be more likely to overdose because they experience more chronic pain, have a better chance of being prescribed painkillers, are given higher doses, and take the medications for longer than men. There has been no major change in the rate of painkillers prescribed over the last 20 years, according to Chris Jones, a health scientist at CDC. But doctors may be prescribing the drugs more frequently for patients who don’t actually need them. A recent study found that almost 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug.

Some experts say the solution is to introduce more prescription monitoring programs, in which pharmacists submit information on the prescriptions, the dosage, the dispenser and the prescriber to the state's health department. By recording these details, it is easier to catch individuals who are "doctor shopping"—visiting multiple doctors to get more prescriptions. But critics say these programs can be an invasion of privacy for patients. Currently, the CDC recommends that health care providers prescribe painkillers responsibly by monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems, along with discussing other treatment options and all the risks and benefits of taking painkillers for chronic conditions. Patient awareness is key, says Carl Hart, a Columbia University associate professor who studies drugs and behavior. "While we should be concerned about new drug-related trends, especially drug-related deaths," he explains, "I am more concerned about us missing an important public health education opportunity."

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