Who is Most at Risk of a Painkiller Overdose? Studies Say Women

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You’ve heard plenty already about the epidemic of abuse of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, and the overdose deaths that go along with the misuse of those drugs.

What you may not know is that women are at particular risk, reports the Centers for Disease Control. In a just-released Vital Signs report, the CDC says that nearly 48,000 women died of an overdose of prescription painkillers between 1999 and 2010, and that while deaths from this type of overdose have increased 265% among men, they’ve jumped 400% among women over time. That equates to approximately 18 women dying every day of a prescription painkiller overdose, the CDC says.

What’s behind the increase? The answer may be a fairly simple reason: There are more prescriptions being written for women. Which is why the CDC is asking doctors and other health care providers to pay attention to women’s increased risk of overdosing, and encouraging better screening and monitoring so that physicians can detect abuse or misuse and intervene before it’s too late.

Though women between 25 and 54 are more likely to go to the ER as a result of misusing these drugs, those 45 to 54 are at the highest risk of dying from an overdose. This is directly tied to women’s experience of chronic pain, according to the report.

Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription painkillers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer periods of time than men, it says, also noting that they may also develop a dependence on these drugs more quickly than guys do. It’s worth noting that there’s conflicting data on whether women get too much or too little pain medication, as indicated in a Spanish study covered recently on Pain Resource. What does seem clear is that too often women aren’t getting the appropriate amount or type of relief to effectively and safely manage their pain, and that’s likely putting them at risk for both under treatment and overdosing. This suggests that, at a minimum, careful monitoring by the doctor who prescribes your meds may be even more important if you’re a woman.

If you’re concerned that you may be at risk of an overdose from your pain meds, start by talking to your doctor, who may not be aware that women are at increased risk of both developing an addiction and dying of an overdose. If she finds that you may be at risk for substance abuse, or are already abusing painkillers, she can suggest resources that can help.

There will soon be more assistance available through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if your employer doesn’t cover mental health and substance abuse. When the next part of the ACA kicks in on Jan. 1, 2014, it will include coverage for 10 essential health benefits. Services to treat substance abuse disorders will be one of these benefits.

Not sure if you should be worried? While it’s always best to talk through your situation with your doctor, the Foundation for a Drug-Free World offers these 10 signs of a possible addiction to prescription painkillers:


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