Prescription painkiller abuse is achieving gender equity.
For many years, men accounted for more cases of drug addiction and most of the overdoses. But that is changing rapidly, and health officials maintain the public and the medical community need to adjust mindsets and practices quickly.
The signs certainly have been there for a while, from the rising number of babies born with drug dependencies to more women arrested on drug charges. But the Center for Disease Control and prevention added an exclamation point with a study released last week.
Between 1999 and 2010, overdose deaths among women increased 400 percent, much faster than the pace among men. Now about 40 percent of those who die from drug overdoses are women, and prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are most often involved.
Overdose deaths are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. The CDC estimates that for each of 6,600 women who died of overdoses in 2010, another 30 went to an emergency room for painkiller misuse or abuse.
Throw out another assumption, because this is not just a growing problem with “young” women. The study shows dramatic increases among women in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups.
The study also reminds us that prescription drug abuse is a different problem, and battling it requires different strategies. The “just say no” campaigns of the past were aimed at street drugs offered to teens in a social or recreational setting. But many of today’s victims get their introduction to these powerful painkillers through a legitimate medical prescription.
The CDC also points out that women:
May become dependent on painkillers more quickly than men.
Are more likely to have chronic pain and therefore more likely to be prescribed painkillers — perhaps for longer and with higher doses.
May be more likely to engage in “doctor shopping.”
That means doctors and pharmacists need to be on the lookout for signs of abuse and much more careful about what they prescribe and distribute. To that end, Marshall University’s medical and pharmacy schools both have initiated programs to better educate future health care providers about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
States need to implement better tracking of prescription sales, and West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky are all working on that. State and federal law enforcement also must continue to crack down on pills diverted to the black market and monitor the sheer volume of product distributed. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration recently levied multi-million dollar fines in an investigation of unprecedented shipments of oxycodone and other controlled drugs in Florida.
But most importantly, women of all ages and their families need to become more educated about the medications they are taking and the dangers of misuse or abuse. That means considering non-prescription options for pain, following instructions on mixing medications, disposing of unused prescriptions properly and not sharing prescriptions.
— Distributed by The Associated Press