Patient Education

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Women's Health

February 2014

More Women Are Dying From Prescription Painkillers

Taking prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin may not seem like a life-threatening act. After all, you can obtain them through your doctor. But if you don’t use these medications properly, they can be deadly. More women, in particular, are overdosing on these drugs.


An alarming trend

More than 16 million people in the U.S. have abused a prescription drug. Painkillers—specifically, opioids—are the main choice. Used alone or with other drugs, they now kill more people than heroin and cocaine combined.

A recent government report highlights the threat of prescription painkillers to women. Researchers analyzed a decade of death certificates related to these drugs. They also looked at emergency room care for overdoses.

From their results, men are still more likely to die from these powerful medications. But the percentage of women overdosing on them spiked between 1999 and 2010. Death rates for women rose more than 5-fold; emergency room visits also doubled. Women between the ages of 45 and 54 were the most likely to overdose.

An addictive high

Pain-relieving drugs are also known as analgesics. Some affect how the nervous system responds to pain. They may block or impair pain sensitivity. Other drugs interfere with the production of certain chemicals in the body.

Taken in high doses, prescription painkillers can be intoxicating. The resulting high can also be addictive. Some people may even crush pills so they can snort or inject them for a faster, more potent punch.

Prescription pain relievers aren’t without side effects, even when used properly. They can cause drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, confusion, dry mouth, and constipation. At higher doses, respiratory and heart problems can occur. You may have slowed breathing or lowered blood pressure, lose consciousness, and even die. When mixed with alcohol or other drugs, they can be especially lethal.

Preventing Painkiller Overdoses

At some point, you may need to take a prescription painkiller. Used appropriately, these medications can effectively manage your pain. But to protect yourself and loved ones from serious health consequences, such as deadly overdoses, practice these rules:

  • Never share prescribed medicines with other people. And keep medication out of children’s reach. A safe dose for you may be harmful to another person.

  • Follow your doctor’s directions when taking a pain-relieving drug. Never take more medication than prescribed.

  • Don’t mix your medication with alcohol or other drugs, such as antihistamines. Also tell your doctor about all the medication you are taking, including over the counter products. He or she can then make sure you won’t suffer any drug interactions.

  • Seek help if you have a substance abuse problem. Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

Prescription drug abuse is a troubling epidemic in adults and children nationwide. Find out how much you know about it here.

Online resources

National Institute on Drug Abuse


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