Prescription Painkillers: Know the Risks

Babette CouserAt a recent conference that I attended on prescription pain medication (e.g., opioid or narcotic pain relievers, including drugs such as Vicodin and OxyContin), I learned that prescription drug overdoses are on the rise among women. Federal data indicate that women between the ages of 45 and 54 are at a greater risk than men in the same age category of overdosing on prescription opioid medications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that while more men than women died from drug overdoses in 1999–2010, during that same time period, the rate of deaths from overdose among women increased by 151%, almost twice that of men. Prescription opioid misuse and abuse resulted in over 200,000 emergency room visits by women in 2010, twice as many as was reported in 2004.

This increased risk can be attributed to women's biology and health needs. Research has shown that women are prescribed higher doses of prescription painkillers and tend to use them for longer periods than men. On average women tend to weigh less than men, but they are prescribed the same or higher doses of prescription pain medications, putting them at greater risk of addiction, which could lead to possible overdose.

Additionally, the rise in overdose deaths among women may also be attributed to more severe chronic pain, being prescribed higher doses of pain medication, and using the pain medications over longer periods of time than men. Use of opioid pain medication may also increase a woman's susceptibility to a variety of harms, including accidental overdose, abuse, addiction, diversion, and accidents involving injuries such as falls and motor vehicle accidents.

When the prescription becomes the problemOpioid pain medications are powerful and highly addictive painkillers. They are generally prescribed to help relieve chronic or severe pain. Over the years, long-term use of these medications for treatment of chronic pain has increased dramatically. Knowing the three key rules for safe use of prescription opioid medications is important and can be very helpful in increasing your everyday quality of life:

  1. Keep your doctor informed. Inform your health care professional about any past history of substance abuse. All patients treated with opioids for pain require careful monitoring by their health care professional for signs of abuse and addiction and to determine when these analgesics are no longer needed.
  2. Follow directions carefully. Opioids are associated with significant side effects, including drowsiness, constipation, and depressed breathing, depending on the amount taken. Taking too much could cause severe respiratory depression or death. Do not crush or break pills. This can alter the rate at which the medication is absorbed and lead to overdose and death.
  3. Reduce the risk of drug interactions. Don't mix opioids with alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines. All of these substances slow breathing, and even a single large dose can cause severe respiratory depression and death. Depressed respiration can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma and permanent brain damage.

Always remember to follow your health care provider's instructions, take pain medications as directed, never share your pain medication with anyone, and do not change the dosage without consulting your health care provider first.

For more information about opioid prescription pain medication, visit

To learn about HHS' efforts to fight opioid abuse, read 3 Priority Areas to Combat Opioid Use.