American women are dying from prescription drug overdose at historically high rates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced July 2.
Between 1999 and 2010, the percentage increase in deaths from prescription opioid pain relievers increased more than 415% among women, compared with 265% among men, according to an analysis of national data sets.
In addition, for every woman who died of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 went to the emergency department for painkiller misuse or abuse.
"Mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are dying from overdoses at rates that we have never seen before," Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said during a media teleconference. "The increase in opiate overdoses and opiate overdose deaths is directly proportional to the increase in prescribing of painkillers."
Prescriptions for opioid pain relievers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone "are increasing to an extent that we would not have anticipated and that could not possibly be clinically indicated," he said.
The findings underscore the importance of reserving prescriptions of opioid pain relievers for situations such as severe cancer pain, "where they can provide important and essential palliation," Dr. Frieden said. "But in many other situations, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Prescribing an opiate may condemn a patient to lifelong addiction and life-threatening complications."
For the analysis, CDC researchers used data from the 1999-2010 National Vital Statistics System and the 2004-2010 Drug Abuse Warning Network to analyze rates of fatal overdoses and ED visits related to drug use or misuse among women (MMWR 2013;62:1-6).
In 2010, 15,323 deaths among women were linked to drug overdose, for a rate of 9.8 per 100,000 population. Between 1999 and 2010, 47,935 women died of opioid pain reliever overdoses. Over that time period, the percentage increase in deaths related to opioid pain relievers was 415% for women and 265% for men. Rates for all drug overdose deaths were highest among women aged 45-54 years (a rate of 21.8 per 100,000 population).
The researchers also reported that in 2010, women made 943,365 ED visits for drug misuse or abuse, a rate of 601 per 100,000 population. The highest ED visit rates were for cocaine or heroin (147.2 per 100,000), benzodiazepines (134.6 per 100,000) and opioid pain relievers (129.6 per 100,000). ED visit rates among women for all drugs tended to be highest among those aged 25-34 years.
Compared with men, Dr. Frieden said that women "are more likely to have chronic pain, to be prescribed painkillers and other medications, to be given higher doses, and to use them for longer time periods. It may be that some of the most common forms of pain are more prevalent among women than men [such as] abdominal pain, migraines, and musculoskeletal pain."
Dr. Frieden advised prescribing clinicians to talk with patients about the risks and benefits of taking opioid pain relievers and to follow guidelines for responsible prescribing "such as screening and monitoring patients for substance abuse and for mental health problems, and [using] prescription drug monitoring programs to identify patients who may be improperly using prescription painkillers."
He also called on states to "improve and implement prescription drug monitoring programs. These programs are just getting up and running in many states."
States "need to do more to ensure that the programs are real-time, complete, and actively managed so that we identify patients who need drug treatment and doctors who need [prescribing] information and education," Dr. Frieden said.
As an example, Dr. Frieden highlighted efforts made in recent years in the state of Washington. Officials there worked with clinicians, health care insurers, and worker compensation programs to develop a consensus on how and when prescription opioids should be used, what some of the alternative treatments are, and resources for patients who are addicted.
"They enforced those guidelines through regulation and saw a more than 20% reduction in opioid deaths in about 3 years," he said.
In the MMWR article, researchers acknowledged certain limitations of the study, including the fact that vital statistics "underestimate the rates of drug involvement in deaths because the type of drug is not specified on many death certificates" and that injury mortality data "might underestimate by up to 35% the actual numbers of deaths for American Indian/Alaska natives and certain other racial/ethnic populations (e.g., Hispanics) because of the misclassification of race/ethnicity of decedents on death certificates."
The researchers had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose.