Deaths from prescription painkillers* have reached epidemic levels in the past decade. The number of overdose deaths is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. A big part of the problem is nonmedical use of prescription painkillers—using drugs without a prescription, or using drugs just for the "high" they cause. In 2010, about 12 million Americans (age 12 or older) reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers in the past year.
Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month. Although most of these pills were prescribed for a medical purpose, many ended up in the hands of people who misused or abused them.
Improving the way prescription painkillers are prescribed can reduce the number of people who misuse, abuse or overdose from these powerful drugs, while making sure patients have access to safe, effective treatment.
* "Prescription painkillers" refers to opioid or narcotic pain relievers, including drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone.
Prescription painkiller overdoses are a public health epidemic.
Certain groups are more likely to abuse or overdose on prescription painkillers.
A West Virginia father, age 26, struggling for years with pain and addiction after shattering his elbow in a car crash, died from a prescription painkiller one week after telling his mother he wanted to go to rehab. In New Hampshire, a 20-year-old man overdosed on a prescription painkiller bought from a friend, becoming the 9th person that year to die from drug overdose in his community of 17,000. Stories such as these are all too common.
The supply of prescription painkillers is larger than ever.
Some states have a bigger problem with prescription painkillers than others.
Drug overdose death rates by state per 100,000 people (2008)
SOURCE: National Vital Statistics System, 2008
* Information on the proper storage and disposal of medications can be found at www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Poisoning/preventiontips.htm.