130705 women opiates

Picture a drug addict who dies from an overdose of prescription medication.

What gender is the addict?

If you answered male, you’d be right, but new evidence suggests that more women are dying from drug overdoses than ever before. More women now die of overdoses from pain pills like OxyContin than from cervical cancer or homicide.  In fact, a new analysis of federal data has found that deaths in recent years have been rising far faster among women, quintupling since 1999.  The number of men who are dying also continues to increase, but at a much lower rate.

Another suprising fact is that older women are more at risk than younger ones.  And while in the past drug overdoses have been disproportionately an urban problem that afflicted minorities, more whites than blacks are dying from prescription drug overdoses.  Asians and Hispanics had the lowest rates.

Deaths among women have been rising for some time, but Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the C.D.C. director, said the problem had gone virtually unrecognized. And for every woman that dies of an overdose, 30 go to the hospital for painkiller abuse.  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. 130705 women opiate Clinicians surmised that the higher death rates indicate that at least some portion of the drugs may have been prescribed appropriately for pain.  If death rates were driven purely by abuse, then one would expect them to be highest among younger women who are the biggest abusers.

The study offered several theories for the increase. Women are more likely than men to be prescribed pain drugs, to use them chronically, and to get prescriptions for higher doses.  The study’s authors hypothesized that it might be because the most common forms of chronic pain, like fibromyalgia, are more common in women. A woman typically also has less body mass than a man, making it easier to overdose.

Women are also more likely to be given prescriptions of psychotropic drugs, like antidepressants and antianxiety medications, and those who overdose are much more likely to have been taking a combination of drugs.

I was interested in this report because I have seen the number of women addicted to prescription medicine increasing in my practice.  While the typical opiate addict is still a young male, women of all ages are finding themselves in trouble.  Men most often are identified when they end up arrested or fired from work.  However, painkiller addiction is most often discovered in women when child welfare is compromised and foster care investigators get involved.  Child neglect and abuse because of prescription drug addiction is growing at an alarming rate.

130704 suicide2Single-parent families, the poor economy and inadequate local housing also contribute to the vice in which women with children find themselves.  When drug abuse is added to the picture, children suffer.

Because the problems of women addicts are different, the treatment must also be different.  One size does not fit all in opiate addiction.  If you or a woman care about is in trouble with prescription drug abuse, find more information on how to help them here.