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Prescription painkillers fuel 11th straight annual rise in drug overdose deaths

A new study released by the National Center for Health Statistics has found that prescription drug overdose death in the U.S. increased for the 11th straight year in 2010. More than 38,000 people died from a prescription overdose that year—the most recent for which statistics on drug overdose deaths are available.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that the rise in prescription deaths was fueled in large part by the high number of overdoses linked to opioid painkillers. More than 22,000 painkiller overdose deaths—or 57% of the total number of overdoses in 2010—were linked to the use of opioid drugs.

More than three-quarters of the prescription painkiller overdoses involved potent opioids such as OxyContin or Percocet. Another 9,400 overdoses involved a cocktail of multiple painkillers such as methadone or codeine mixed with other prescription medications.

The high number of overdoses linked to prescription painkillers was due in large part to the dangers of these drugs when combined with certain medications. In over 75% of the opioid painkiller overdoses, other drugs such as benzodiazepines ( Xanax, Valium, or Ativan) were also present. Prescription painkillers were also involved in about two-thirds of overdoses involving antiepileptic or anti-Parkinson’s drugs, 57% of antidepressant overdoses, and 56% of overdoses involving drugs to reduce inflammation or fever.