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Health & Science

Overdosing On Painkillers On The Rise Among Women

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is raising the alarm about prescription painkillers and women. Over the past decade, the number of women dying after an overdose of drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin has skyrocketed.


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Men still die more often from prescription painkiller overdoses, but the death rate among women is increasing faster. The deaths among women have increased five-fold since 1999.

Dr. Tom Frieden is director of the CDC. He says 6,600 women die every year by overdosing on painkillers.

“That’s nearly twice the number who died from cervical cancer. Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying from overdoses at rates that we have never seen before.”

Frieden says the overdoses correspond to the increase in the number of prescriptions doctors are writing for these powerful but risky drugs.

Every 3 minutes, a woman gets to the emergency department for prescrption painkiller misuse or abuse

He adds that doctors still seem to believe men are more likely to become addicted to painkillers. But women are at high risk of developing a problem too.

“Women are more likely to have chronic pain, to be prescribed painkillers and other medications, to be given higher doses, and to use them for longer time periods than men.”

Dr. Jeffrey Steinbauer is a family physician with Baylor. He says he’s seen the increase in painkiller use since he began practicing in 1980.

“Now it is not uncommon to have patients come in who tell me they are on opioid mediations and tranquilizers on a regular basis that have been prescribed by other physicians for other reasons.”

He says pain is a complex medical problem and time-strapped doctors often find it easier just to write a script.

“Somebody comes in who has chronic pain for example, it could be a 30, 45 minutes or an hour discussion about how they got on the medication, what the pain’s about, how do we manage that, what could we do for alternatives? And in many places, primary care physicians like myself are expected to see four or five patients an hour. So dedicating that kind of time to counseling is also probably part of the problem.”

Steinbauer says accidental overdoses can occur when painkillers are mixed with alcohol, but also when mixed with other drugs like anti-anxiety pills or even anti-histamines.

He says doctors need to ask about all drugs, but patients also need to share that information.

Another solution is Texas’s drug-monitoring website. Doctors can log on and learn about prescriptions the patient is getting from other doctors. That could raise a red flag if it seems patients are doctor-shopping to get drugs. 

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