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Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Killing More Middle-aged Women: CDC

According to a new report by federal health regulators, women may be more likely than men to become dependent on prescription painkillers, such as Vicodin, and overdose deaths among women are on the rise in the United States as a result.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a prescription painkiller overdose report yesterday, indicating that there has been a 400% increase since 1999 involving overdose deaths among women using prescription pain medication, with middle-aged women particularly at risk. This compares to a 265% increase among men during the same period.

While men are still more likely to die of a prescription painkiller overdose, the numbers of overdose deaths involving women are on the rise, especially in women aged 45 to 64. This age group has the highest risk of overdose death from opioid or narcotic painkillers, including OxyContin and methadone. The rates of overdose nearly tripled in this age group between 1999 and 2010.

Researchers determined that women are more likely to experience chronic pain, be prescribed painkillers, take higher doses and use the prescription medication for longer periods of time than men. The CDC research found white women have a higher risk than any other ethnic groups.

Women are often introduced to this type of prescription painkiller medication on the advice of a doctor. They seek solutions to chronic pain from back injuries or other ailments, turning to medications like Vicodin or Oxycontin, becoming addicted more quickly than men.

More than 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010. Five times more women died from overdoses in 2010 than in 1999. Women accounted for 40% of the overall painkiller overdose deaths in 2010. The CDC also found women are involved in one out of ten suicides related to painkiller overdoses.

Painkiller dependency and overdose was once thought of as primarily a male problem. Researchers determined women are now more likely to die from painkiller overdose than from cervical cancer or homicide.

Prescription Painkillers and Abuse Prevention

The CDC hopes the report and renewed focus on prescription painkiller overdose and abuse will help spotlight the disturbing trend. The researchers recommend health care providers practice responsible prescribing, screening women who may be at potential risk for substance abuse.

They also urge doctors to be aware that women are more likely to “doctor shop” and obtain prescriptions of painkillers from multiple doctors. This causes them to be at higher risk of abuse and overdose.

Middle-aged women are most at risk of abuse and overdose death from prescription painkillers, however younger women are also at high risk as well. Women between the ages of 25 and 54 are more likely than other age groups to need emergency medical attention as a result of prescription painkillers.

The CDC notes that for every one woman who dies from prescription painkiller overdose, 30 women are admitted to hospital emergency rooms because of painkiller abuse.

The increase in prescribing of prescription painkillers over the past decade plays a significant role in the rise in abuse and overdose which has been seen among women. Last year a report released by the CDC named prescription painkiller overdoses a “U.S. epidemic.”

The report released in January 2012 detailed the increasing numbers of overdose deaths by opioid and narcotic painkillers. The report noted opioid painkillers were responsible for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined since 2003.

Researchers emphasize the importance for healthcare providers to recognize women are at a much higher risk of overdose than previously thought. They also recommend doctors use state monitoring programs to track prescriptions and identify at risk patients with a history of abuse.

Other pain treatment options should be discussed with patients first, along with the risks and benefits of taking prescription painkillers containing hydrocodone or oxycodone. Researchers also recommend doctors avoid prescribing combinations of prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines, including Xanax and Valium.

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