Overdose deaths due to prescription painkillers have been on the rise among all segments of the population, but a new analysis of federal data by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that such deaths have quintupled among women since 1999.
Although more men are still dying of prescription drug overdoses, women are catching up: in the last 14 years, the percentage increase in deaths has been greater for women, spiking by 400% as opposed to 265% for men, the CDC says.
According to the agency, 6,631 women died of opioid overdoses in 2010 — more than twice the number who die from cervical cancer — compared with 10,020 men; in addition, while younger women in their 20s and 30s tend to have the highest rates of opioid abuse, the overdose death rate was highest among women ages 45 to 54.
In 2010, there were more than 200,000 emergency room department visits for misuse of opioids among women, one every three minutes, the CDC says.
The prescription opioid problem affects women in a different way than it affects men, the agency says: for one thing, women are more likely to have chronic pain and be prescribed painkillers — and to be given higher doses and use them for longer time periods than men. This may be because some of the most common forms of pain are more prevalent among women, who are more likely to have abdominal pain and migraine and muscular skeletal pain than men are, the CDC says.
But women face particular challenges with prescription opioids, the CDC says: on average, women weigh less than men, but may be prescribed the same dose, putting them at risk for adverse events. And for women of childbearing age who are taking opiates and become pregnant, their babies may be born addicted and at higher risk of heart malformations.