WASHINGTON American women are overdosing from prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin at an alarmingly high rate, with five times as many women dying from them in 2010 compared with 1999, U.S. health officials said on Tuesday.
Although more men still die from prescription painkiller abuse than women, more women have been hospitalized for overdoses from painkillers since 1993, and the increase in deaths has been far more rapid among women, rising 400 percent compared with 265 percent among men, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
"Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said. "Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying at rates we have never seen before."
Frieden called on doctors and communities to help stop this "epidemic" of prescription painkiller abuse. The increase in prescription painkiller deaths is directly related to more doctors prescribing opiates unnecessarily, Frieden said on a conference call with reporters.
Frieden said the spike means more women since 2007 have died from drug overdoses than car accidents, and four times as many women died from prescription painkiller abuse than cocaine and heroin combined.
In 2010, four times as many women died from a drug overdose than were victims of homicide, according to CDC's monthly Vital Signs report.
"Prescribing an opiate may be condemning the patient to lifelong addiction," Frieden said.
Prescription painkillers such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals' Oxycontin should be reserved for severe cancer pain, he said.
A number of factors may be responsible for the spike in deaths, researchers said. Women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers and in higher doses, they tend to use prescription painkillers chronically and for longer periods of time, and they are more likely to "doctor shop," meaning they go to multiple providers for the same prescription.
Researchers said prescription painkiller abuse has become a major public health problem. They urged states to follow the model of Washington, which has crafted guidelines for prescribers who treat patients for chronic non-cancer pain.
"Health care providers can help improve the way painkillers are prescribed, while making sure women have access to safe and effective pain treatment," said Dr. Linda Degutis, director of CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
The study's findings are based on 1999-2010 data from the National Vital Statistics System, which tracks births and deaths, and 2004-2010 data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which monitors drug-related visits to hospital emergency rooms.
It found that women between 25 and 54 were the most likely to visit emergency rooms for prescription painkiller overdoses, and women 45 to 54 had the highest risk of dying from an overdose of prescription painkillers. One in 10 female suicides resulted from prescription drug abuse, the study found.
A total of 15,323 women died from a drug overdose in 2010 and emergency department visits for prescription painkillers more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, according to the study.
(Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Doina Chiacu)