How OWH Is Fighting the Opioid Epidemic

Whether you watch, read, or scroll to get your news, you have undoubtedly seen the reports — our country is in the midst of an epidemic of overdose and deaths as a result of opioid misuse. In 2015, 33,091 Americans died as a result of opioid overdoses. That's higher than the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents, and it's a 15.6% increase from the previous year. The crisis is having an impact on communities across the country, as deaths have increased across all races and almost all ages. However, the epidemic is having a particularly significant impact on women's health.

Woman looking at prescription with doctorThe picture of opioid use and misuse is different for women compared with men. Research suggests that biological differences between women and men seem to influence susceptibility to substance abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are more likely to experience chronic pain and use prescription opioid pain medications for longer periods and in higher doses than men. When used properly, prescription opioids can provide significant benefits to patients suffering from short-term surgical pain or chronic pain as a result of serious injuries or illnesses such as cancer. Unfortunately, the same properties that enable opioids to manage pain can also lead to dependence, misuse, overdose, and death. 

Women also tend to use substances differently than men, sometimes using a smaller amount of drugs for a shorter amount of time before they become dependent. Studies suggest that women who use opioids not only progress to dependence more quickly than men, but they also experience more cravings than men. Psychological and emotional distress has also been identified as a risk factor for hazardous prescription opioid use among women but not among men. As awareness of the dangers of prescription drug misuse has spread, doctors and other medical professionals are writing fewer prescriptions for opioids. As a result, women are increasingly turning to heroin and illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. 

Recognizing the impact that the opioid epidemic is having on women, OWH partnered with public health and medical experts, policymakers, community groups, and women with lived experiences to discuss what works and what we can do better. In just the past month, OWH announced two actions intended to raise awareness about the crisis and promote positive solutions that we can implement to save lives.

First, on July 19, OWH released the Final Report: Opioid Use, Misuse, and Overdose in Women (PDF, 1.5 MB). The report examines the prevention, treatment, and recovery issues for women who misuse, have use disorders, and/or overdose on opioids. It highlights the unique aspects of this epidemic and how they impact women across age, race, geography, and income. It also presents findings and takeaways from OWH's national and regional opioid meetings held in 2016. 

On July 25, we announced the award of 16 grants to prevent opioid misuse among women and girls. These funds will support projects in 12 states focused on primary and/or secondary prevention of prescription and illegal opioid misuse by women across the lifespan. The selected public and private nonprofit entities are on the front lines of the epidemic in their communities, and they have developed innovative solutions aimed at girls 10 to 17, women in their reproductive years, and older women.

The factors that led to the crisis of opioid use in women are complex, which is why we must work together across multiple fronts if we are to turn the tide on this epidemic. For more information about what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is doing to access resources on prevention, treatment, and recovery, please visit www.hhs.gov/opioids.