The number of fatal prescription painkiller overdoses among women has risen fivefold since 1999, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday.
Calling it an "under-recognized and growing problem," the CDC urged health-care providers to exercise more caution when doling out prescription medications, and suggested that states and the federal government could curtail the alarming rise by better educating people about the dangers of prescription drugs.
"Mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are dying at rates that we have never seen before," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.
Here, five key findings from the report:
1. Eighteen women die from overdoses per day
Roughly 48,000 women in the U.S. died from prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010. Per the CDC's classification, that includes deaths caused only by opioids and narcotics, like OxyContin and Vicodin.
In 2010 alone, the latest year for which data is available, more than 6,600 women died from painkiller overdoses, which averages out to about 18 per day. In addition, more than 200,000 women were treated in emergency rooms for drug misuse or abuse in 2010.
2. Deaths are rising much faster among women than men
Among women, prescription painkiller overdoses have shot up a staggering 400 percent since 1999. The number of painkiller overdoses among men has also risen dramatically, but by a smaller, 265 percent.
Far more men than women still die annually from painkiller overdoses. In 2010, 10,000 men died from painkiller overdoses.
Women were more likely than men to report chronic pain, and thus to be prescribed painkillers in the first place, the CDC reported. In addition, the CDC hypothesized that women were more likely to engage in "doctor shopping" to obtain prescriptions from multiple doctors, putting them at a greater risk of overdosing or taking lethal combinations of medication.
3. Drug overdoses as a whole outpace auto fatalities
Since 2007, more women have died as a result of drug overdoses than have been killed in car crashes. That figure is not limited to just prescription painkiller deaths, but consists of overdoses from all drugs, including banned substances like heroin, and non-prescription medications.
An average of 42 women died every day in 2010 from all forms of drug overdoses, according to the CDC; about 940,000 went to the emergency room for misusing drugs.
4. Younger women are most at risk
Women between the ages of 25 and 34 were more likely than any other age group to seek medical attention for abusing or misusing prescription drugs. Nearly 50,000 women in that age bracket went to the emergency room in 2010 alone after improperly taking painkillers, or roughly one every three minutes.
5. A spike in prescriptions correlates to a spike in deaths
Illicit drugs used to make up the bulk of drug overdose fatalities, but opioid-related deaths have quietly climbed in the past decade. Meanwhile, cocaine and heroin overdoses have remained relatively flat.
A possible cause, the CDC said, is the rising rate at which doctors are prescribing painkillers, making them more readily available than ever before. In May, the CDC reported that suicides by poisoning, which includes prescription overdoses, had jumped 24.4 percent since 1999, the second-largest increase for any suicide method.