Prescription painkillers outpace heroin, cocaine in OD deaths

Overdose deaths from abuse of prescription painkillers in the U.S. now outnumber deaths involving heroin and cocaine combined, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

In 2008, drug overdoses caused 36,450 deaths in the U.S. One or more prescription drugs were involved in 20,044 of these deaths, CDC researchers wrote in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Opioid pain relievers, including oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone, were involved in 14,800. In 1999, only about 4,000 people were killed by overdosing on this type of drug, the CDC said.

Death rates among non-Hispanic whites and American Indians were three times higher than rates in blacks and Hispanic whites, and were highest among people ages 35 to 54. People in rural counties were about twice as likely to overdose on prescription painkillers as people in large cities.

Sales of the drugs soared along with the death rates, rising fourfold from 1999 to 2008.


In 2010, 4.8% of Americans 12 years or older used opioid pain relievers nonmedically -- that is, without a prescription or purely for the feeling the drug causes. The report calculated that by 2010, “enough opioid pain relievers were sold to medicate every American adult with a typical dose of 5 mg of hydrocodone every four hours one month.”

The CDC recommended interventions including tracking prescription patterns, tracking overdoses, and limiting reimbursements to reduce inappropriate prescribing, but cautioned that officials “must strike a balance between reducing misuse and abuse and safeguarding legitimate access to treatment.”

Visit the CDC to read more about prescription painkiller overdoses.

The research paper published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is available here.

Return to the Booster Shots blog.