Prescription Drug Abuse: Top 10 Things CDC Says You Should Know

Linebacker Austin Box of the Oklahoma Sooners takes a break during a game in 2010. Box died of an accidental prescription drug overdose the following year.

Austin Box “gutted through” pain. Even after a bad blow to his back that ruptured a disc, the linebacker for the University of Oklahoma Sooners played through the pain that lingered after rehab.

He was upbeat, alert and seemingly at the top of his physical game on a three-day trip to St. Louis with his father in 2011. But the day after they returned, Austin was found unconscious in a friend’s home. He died after being taken to the hospital, at age 22.

The toxicology report showed five different pain medications and an anti-anxiety drug in Austin’s system — a cocktail that ended up stopping his heart.

In the months that followed, Craig Box, Austin’s father, couldn’t help thinking back over their trip to St. Louis for signs of an addiction. “I saw nothing that gave me any indication that this was an issue,” he said — no sign that his “all-American” son was about to become part of an increasingly American statistic.

Overdose deaths from prescription painkillers have quadrupled nationwide in recent years, rising from 4,030 deaths in 1999 to 16,651 in 2010. According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 125,000 lives were lost in the last 10 years to legal drugs like Vicodin, OxyContin and methadone.

In fact, deaths from prescription painkillers, or “opioids,” as they’re also known, now outpaces those attributed to heroin and cocaine combined.

But the problem runs deeper still. For every overdose death from prescription painkillers, the CDC estimates there are:

  • 10 treatment admissions for abuse
  • 32 emergency department visits for misuse or abuse
  • 130 people who abuse or are dependent
  • 825 people who take prescription painkillers for non-medical use

How did America’s drug problem shift from the streets to the medicine cabinet so quickly?

On Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour broadcast, health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser travels to Oklahoma — the No. 1 state for prescription painkiller abuse — to talk with the Box family about how Austin may have become hooked on prescription drugs and how he was able to hide the addiction from his family. She also sits down with the CDC’s Frieden to hear more about the scope of the problem nationwide and what might be done about it.

In the meantime, the CDC has compiled a list of 10 things you should know about prescription drug abuse. Questions? Leave them in the comments section below, and a CDC official will try to answer them on the NewsHour’s website in the days ahead.

Top 10 You Should Know About Prescription Drug Abuse, According to the CDC

1. Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than motor vehicle crashes.

Drug overdoses killed more than 38,000 people in 2010; about 105 deaths per day. Of these deaths, prescription painkiller overdoses killed 16,500 people; about 45 deaths per day. “Prescription painkillers” refers to opioid or narcotic pain relievers, such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone.

2. Enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate each American adult every four hours for one month.

The amount of painkillers being prescribed is growing significantly. In fact, the quantity of prescription painkillers sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors offices was four times higher in 2010 than in 1999.

3. Deaths from prescription painkillers have reached epidemic levels in the past decade.

The number of prescription painkiller overdose deaths is now greater than the number of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. And the number of deaths from prescription painkillers is growing fast. The number of deaths from prescription painkillers increased from 4,030 deaths in 1999 to 16,651 deaths in 2010. This means that prescription painkiller overdoses killed four times as many people in 2010 than in 1999.

4. Roughly one in 20 people in the US reported using prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons in the past year.

A big part of the prescription drug overdose problem is non-medical use of prescription painkillers — using drugs without a prescription, or using drugs just for the “high.” Most people using drugs without a prescription obtain them from people they know, who originally got them from doctors.

5. You can help prevent prescription drug overdoses.

Steps you can take include the following:

  • Use prescription painkillers only as directed by a health care provider.
  • Store prescriptions drugs in a secure place and dispose of them properly.
  • Do not sell or share prescription painkillers with others.
  • For people who think they have a prescription drug abuse problem, please contact 1-800-662-HELP to find treatment resources.

6. The prescription drug overdose epidemic can be stopped through effective public health interventions.

In addition to the things you can do at home to keep yourself and your family safe, there are also community and state-wide strategies that help prevent prescription painkiller overdoses. These include programs and policies used by health care providers, insurers, and states. Learn more about public health interventions.

7. States can start or improve prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) and use Patient Review and Restriction (PRR) programs.

These programs can help stop this epidemic, improve the coordination of care for patients, and ensure appropriate care for high-risk patients. Find out more about PDMPS and PRR program.

8. States can enforce policies aimed at reducing drug diversion, abuse, and overdose.

States can pass, enforce and evaluate pill mill, doctor shopping and other laws to reduce prescription painkiller abuse. Learn more about which state policies show promise in reducing prescription drug abuse and overdose.

9. States and communities can enhance access to substance abuse treatment.

Effective, accessible substance abuse treatment can reduce overdoses among people struggling with dependence and addiction. Learn more about substance abuse treatment.

10. Health care providers should use evidence-based clinical guidelines and practices to promote safe and effective use of prescription painkillers.

The following guidelines can help:

  • Screening and monitoring for substance abuse and mental health problems.
  • Prescribing prescription painkillers only when other treatments have not been effective for pain.
  • Prescribing only the quantity of prescription painkillers needed based on the expected length of pain.
  • Using patient-provider agreements combined with urine drug tests for people using prescription painkillers long term.
  • Talking with patients about safely using, storing and disposing of prescription painkillers.

Do you have questions about prescription drugs? Leave them in the comments section below, email them to us or send us a tweet @jasokane. A CDC official will try to answer your questions on the PBS NewsHour website in the days ahead.