CDC Says Prescription Painkiller Overdoses at Epidemic Levels

The death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade, according to an analysis in the CDC Vital Signs report released today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This new finding shows that more than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving narcotic pain relievers like hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin), and oxymorphone (Opana).

“Overdoses involving prescription painkillers are at epidemic levels and now kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, ” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “States, health insurers, health care providers and individuals have critical roles to play in the national effort to stop this epidemic of overdoses while we protect patients who need prescriptions to control pain. ”

The increased use of prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons (without a prescription for the high they cause), along with growing sales, has contributed to the large number of overdoses and deaths. In 2010, 1 in every 20 people in the United States age 12 and older—a total of 12 million people—reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Based on the data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, sales of these drugs to pharmacies and health care providers have increased by more than 300 percent since 1999.

“Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America, ” said Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control PolicyExternal Web Site Icon. “From day one, we have been laser–focused on this crisis by taking a comprehensive public health and public safety approach. All of us have a role to play. Health care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. And parents and grandparents can take time today to properly dispose of any unneeded or expired medications from the home and to talk to their kids about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. ”

“Almost 5,500 people start to misuse prescription painkillers every day, ” said Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Administrator Pamela S. Hyde,  “Just like other public health epidemics, community–based prevention can be a proven, life–saving and cost–effective key to breaking the trend and restoring health and well–being. ”

The prescription painkiller death rates among non–Hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives were three times those of blacks and Hispanic whites. In addition, the death rate was highest among persons aged 35–54 years. Overdose resulted in 830,652 years of potential life lost before age 65 years, a number comparable to the years of potential life lost from motor vehicle crashes and much higher than the years of potential life lost due to homicide.

For more information about prescription drug overdoses in the United States, please visit


  1. Bill Lukens says:

    It is interesting that these articles don’t usually mention the thousands of people for whom perscription pain medication allow a normal life.
    Many of us have arthritis, degenerative joint or bone diseases, nerve damage, or some other chronic issue that is relieved by pain medication.
    Doctors are closely scrutinzied by the DEA and insurance companies for prescribing pain medicines and while their abuse and non-prescriptive use needs attention, the fear mongering from these reports is detrimental.
    Notice that the term “Painkillers” is used through out the CDC report…

  2. Doctors are now afraid to prescribe painkillers because of the scrutiny by the DEA and Insurance companies? Insurance companies are Doctors? Could a lot of this be prescriptions that are being abused by people other than for whom the prescription was written? I agree with Mr. Luken many people need these prescriptions to function from painful diseases. What I am afraid of is that this will send more people to countries that do not regulate their drugs as well as our country does,taking very uncertain chances of dosages or even the actual drug itself.