Deaths from drug overdose increase for 11th consecutive year

Nearly 60% of the drug overdose deaths in 2010 involved pharmaceutical drugs, and opioid analgesics were involved in about three of every four overdose deaths.

In 2010, drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in the United States, according to a CDC letter published in JAMA on February 20.

A total of 38,329 individuals died from a drug overdose in the United States in 2010—an increase from the 37,004 overdose deaths in 2009. A steady rise in overdose deaths has occurred for the past 11 years, starting with 16,849 deaths in 1999.

Deaths involving opioid analgesic overdose also have been increasing. A total of 4,030 overdose deaths occurred in 1999, and the number has increased dramatically to 15,597 deaths in 2009 and 16,651 deaths in 2010.

Nearly 60% of the drug overdose deaths (n = 22,134) in 2010 involved pharmaceutical drugs. Opioid analgesics (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone) were involved in about three of every four pharmaceutical overdose deaths (n = 16,651).

CDC used data from the National Center for Health Statistics 2010 multiple cause-of-death file, which is based on death certificates, to conduct the analysis.

Medications often prescribed for mental health conditions also were involved in a substantial number of pharmaceutical overdose deaths. Benzodiazepines (i.e., antianxiety drugs) were involved in almost 30% (n = 6,497) of these deaths, antidepressants in 18% (n = 3,889), and antipsychotics in 6% (n = 1,351). CDC noted that deaths involving more than one drug or drug class were counted multiple times and therefore not mutually exclusive.

“Patients with mental health or substance use disorders are at increased risk for nonmedical use and overdose from prescription painkillers as well as being prescribed high doses of these drugs,” said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, CDC Director, in a news release. “Appropriate screening, identification, and clinical management by health care providers are essential parts of both behavioral health and chronic pain management.”

CDC described several steps that are being taken at the national, state, and local levels, as well as by nongovernmental organizations, to help prevent overdoses from prescription drugs.

The following actions are being taken by the federal government:

  • Tracking prescription drug overdose trends to improve understanding of the epidemic
  • Encouraging the development of abuse-deterrent opioid formulations and products that treat abuse and overdose
  • Educating health care providers and the public about prescription drug abuse and overdose
  • Requiring that manufacturers of extended-release and long-acting opioids make education programs available to prescribers about the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, choosing patients appropriately, managing and monitoring patients, and counseling patients on the safe use of these drugs
  • Using opioid labeling as a tool to inform prescribers and patients about the approved uses of these medications
  • Developing, evaluating, and promoting programs and policies shown to prevent prescription drug abuse and overdose, while making sure patients have access to safe, effective pain treatment

CDC also reported that many states are taking the following actions:

  • Starting or improving prescription drug monitoring programs, which are electronic databases that track all prescriptions for opioids in the state
  • Using prescription drug monitoring programs, public insurance programs, and workers’ compensation data to identify improper prescribing of opioids
  • Setting up programs for public insurance programs, workers’ compensation programs, and state-run health plans that identify and address improper patient use of opioids
  • Passing, enforcing, and evaluating "pill mill," "doctor shopping," and other state laws to reduce prescription opioid abuse
  • Encouraging state licensing boards to take action against inappropriate prescribing
  • Increasing access to substance abuse treatment

Additional information about prescription drug overdoses in the United States is available at CDC's Home & Recreational Safety: Unintentional Poisoning website.

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