By Steven Reinberg
TUESDAY, July 2 (HealthDay News) -- The rate of fatal overdoses of prescription painkillers and other drugs among U.S. women quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, federal officials reported Tuesday.
Long thought of as primarily a male problem, drug addiction is increasingly affecting women, and the new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 42 women in the United States die each day from prescription drug overdoses.
"Prescription drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in women," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said during a noon press conference. "Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying from overdoses at rates we have never seen before."
The CDC said that nearly 48,000 women died of overdoses from any form of prescribed drug between 1999 and 2010. The annual death rate for women from drug overdoses now surpasses that of car crash deaths, the agency said.
Emergency room visits for abuse or overdose have also increased dramatically, Frieden added.
Much of this increase is due to the widespread abuse of prescription opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin or Vicodin, which have been more frequently prescribed in the past decade.
"The increase in opioid overdoses and opioid overdose deaths is directly proportional to the increase in prescribing," Frieden said.
These drugs should be reserved for treating severe pain, as occurs with debilitating illnesses such as cancer. "But in many other situations, the risks [to patients] far outweigh the benefits," he said. "Prescribing an opioid may be condemning a patient to lifelong addiction and life-threatening complications."
Although men are still more likely to die from painkiller overdoses, since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was greater among women -- 400 percent in women compared with 265 percent in men, the CDC said.
Other statistics, based on 2010 data:
- Suicides from these drugs accounted for 34 percent of all suicides among women, compared with 8 percent among men.
- More than 940,000 women were seen in emergency departments for drug misuse or abuse.
- More than 6,600 women, or 18 women every day, died from a prescription painkiller overdose.
- Narcotic painkillers accounted for four times more deaths among women than deaths linked to cocaine and heroin combined.
- More than 200,000 emergency department visits were for misuse or abuse of these drugs among women -- about one every three minutes.
"This is a major public health concern and it's getting worse every year," said Dr. Yves Duroseau, chairman of emergency services at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "People are losing their lives unnecessarily.
"There needs to be more public awareness of the detrimental effects of these medications," he added. "And there needs to be more support to get people off narcotic painkillers and help them with their dependence."
Research has found that women are more likely to suffer chronic pain, use prescription painkillers at higher doses and use them for longer periods of time than men, according to the CDC.
In addition, women may become dependent on these drugs faster than men and may engage in "doctor shopping" -- getting prescriptions from several doctors, the agency said.
CDC experts said women can take steps to make sure they don't become part of these statistics. These steps include using prescriptions only as directed by a doctor, discussing medication use carefully with the physician, and throwing out medications as soon as treatment is finished and not keeping them around "just in case."
People who feel they need help for any substance abuse issue can reach out to 1-800-662-HELP or call Poison Help (1-800-222-1222) with questions about medicines.
Individuals can also prevent drug misuse and abuse by not selling or sharing their prescription drugs and never taking someone else's prescription painkillers, the agency said.
Doctors play a key role, too, and need to adhere to guidelines when prescribing narcotic painkillers. They should also use state drug monitoring programs to identify people misusing these drugs, the CDC advised.
Doctors can also suggest other treatment options for patients that do not include prescription drugs, the CDC said.
For more on prescription painkillers, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.