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Americans take a lot of pills, one reason the pharmaceutical industry is so profitable. These drugs have gotten more powerful over the years, making them more effective in some cases and more dangerous in others.

Prescription painkillers are so potent that users can develop an addiction if they aren't careful. Opioid-based drugs, in particular, have been abused in recent years, creating dependence and severe problems with withdrawal.

They can also kill when taken in an overdose, and federal health officials say that's been happening with alarming frequency. In a data brief the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the age-adjusted rate for opioid-analgesic poisoning deaths nearly quadrupled from 1.4 per 100,000 in 1999 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2011.

Drugs like hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone were involved in 11,693 drug-poisoning deaths in 2011, up from 2,749 deaths in 1999. The only good news in the CDC report is the overdose death rate has declined slightly since 2006.

Most common injury

More people are injured by poisoning than by any other method in the U.S. and the CDC says drugs – both illegal drugs like heroin and legal prescription drugs – are the primary source of poisoning. Drugs have accounted for 90% of poisoning deaths since 2011.

If you think the dramatic rise in overdose deaths is because teenagers are raiding their parents' medicine cabinets for a good time, you would be wrong. According to the CDC, the biggest increase in pain killer overdose deaths over the last decade was older adults, age 55 to 64.

In many cases pain killer overdose deaths resulted from taking a combination of drugs, particularly different kinds of pain drugs. The CDC says identifying populations at high risk for drug poisoning death should be the first step in putting together targeted prevention strategies.

What to do

The Mayo Clinic maintains that prescription drug abuse is not all that common among patients who are taking painkillers to treat a medical condition, a position that appears to be at odds with the CDC finding. However, if you are taking a prescribed pain killer, Mayo suggests some things you can do to avoid dependence or overdose.

  • Make sure you're getting the right medication. When you see your doctor, make sure the doctor clearly understands your condition and the signs and symptoms it's causing.
  • Stay in contact with your doctor. Make sure that the medication you're taking is working and you're taking the right dose.
  • Follow directions. It sounds overly simple but many cases of accidental overdose are because the patient wasn't using the medication the way it was prescribed.
  • Understand what you are taking. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the effects of your medication so you know what to expect.
  • Never use another person's prescription. Everyone's different. Even if you have a similar medical condition, it may not be the right medication or dose for you.

Preventing overdose deaths among teens

Prescription pain killer abuse was widely reported among teens until recently, when heroin became plentiful and cheap. Even so, young people may be at special risk.

Any talk with kids about drugs should include the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Parents who are taking a prescription pain killer for a medical condition should keep the medication in a secure place.

Make sure you child isn't ordering prescription drugs online. Some websites sell counterfeit and dangerous drugs that may not require a prescription.  

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