Every day, 42 women die from a drug overdose – and nearly half of those overdoses are from prescription painkillers.
In fact, according to newly released figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of women dying from prescription drug overdoses has increased by more than 400% since 1999 – nearly double the 265% increase of deaths in men.
“In 2010, more than 6,600 women died from prescription painkillers, four times as many died from cocaine and heroin combined,” says CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
These numbers are proportional to the increasingly high use of prescription painkillers in the last decade, Frieden says, but “the overwhelming number of these deaths … more than 70% were unintentional.”
In fact, a woman was admitted to the emergency room for prescription drug overdose or misuse every three minutes, the CDC found. While women between the ages of 25-54 were the ones most likely to go to the ER, it was women between the ages of 45 and 54 who had the highest risk of dying from a prescription painkiller overdose.
So why is the epidemic hitting women so hard?
Women are more likely to have chronic pain, like fibromyalgia, and thus be prescribed pain killers, Frieden says. Women may also be given higher doses and use them for longer periods of time. Also given that women tend to be smaller than men, the relative dosage may have a larger impact on a woman than a man.
None of this surprises Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opiod Prescribing.
“You see many women with chronic non-cancer pain, and opiods are being overprescribed,” he says. “When you overprescribe to people who shouldn’t be using these drugs, it’s dangerous. Even in patients that don’t get addicted, they are dangerous.”
Frieden points to increased education for physicians and for patients, as well as more tracking and monitoring programs. After all, he says, “Stopping this epidemic in women and men is everybody’s business. Doctors need to be cautious about prescribing and patients about using these drugs. Together we can turn this epidemic around. ”