(USA Today) -- More women are dying from prescription painkiller overdoses than ever before, highlighting what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a growing public health epidemic.
The CDC study shows that while men are still more likely to die of overdoses, the number of deaths among women increased five-fold in the last decade, four times more than deaths in women from cocaine and heroin combined, says CDC director Tom Frieden. About 12% of these deaths were suicides, CDC experts said.
The rate of prescription drug overdose deaths of women increased 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared with an increase of 250% for men. More men die of prescription painkiller overdoses - about 23,000 in 2010, compared with 15,300 for women.
"Unfortunately, women are catching up in this regard," Frieden said.
Women may be more prone to overdoses because they're more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed painkillers, have higher doses, and use them longer than men, said Linda Degutis, director of CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. But doctors may not recognize these facts about women, said John Eadie, director of a Brandeis University program that tracks prescription-drug monitoring in the USA.
Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers skyrocketed over the past decade despite no major increases in the need for prescription painkillers over the last 20 years, said Chris Jones, a health scientist at CDC. Doctors are prescribing medications more frequently for patients who may not need them, a trend in the medical profession that needs to be reversed, Frieden said.
Women between 45 and 54 had the greatest increases in drug overdose deaths, likely because of dependence on prescription drugs to ease chronic pain, experts said.
A jump was also seen in visits to hospital emergency rooms. Painkiller-related ER visits by women more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, the CDC found.
These numbers alone, however, may not tell the whole tale.
"If one looks carefully at the data it can be quickly seen that the vast majority of prescription overdose deaths occur as a consequence of individuals combining these drugs with another sedative," said Carl Hart, a Columbia University associate professor who studies drugs and behavior.
The solution to this prescription problem lies in maximizing prescription monitoring programs, Frieden said.
Washington began one of the first such programs in 2007, allowing pharmacists to submit patient records of prescriptions, dosage, the dispenser and prescriber to the state's health department. Frieden says these programs can curb drug use by catching "doctor shoppers" and "pill mills," but critics say the programs can be intrusive for conscientious clinicians and patients.
Health care providers should responsibly prescribe prescription painkillers by monitoring patients for substance abuse and mental health problems, discussing patient treatment options that don't involve prescription drugs, and discussing the risks and benefits of taking painkillers for chronic conditions, the CDC says.
Patients should use prescription drugs only as directed by doctors, discuss all medications they're taking with their doctors, and dispose of medication after they've completed the prescribed treatment, Frieden said. Women should also discuss pregnancy plans with their doctors to ensure infants do not develop heart malformations and become addicted to opiates, he said.
He said giving this "under-recognized issue" a spotlight is key in keeping deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses at bay.
"While we should be concerned about new drug-related trends, especially drug-related deaths, I am more concerned about us missing an important public health education opportunity," Hart said.
Contributing: Associated Press