When we think of drug overdose, we probably think of the drug addict we have seen in movies shooting up behind the dumpster. The police bag and tag the unfortunate soul, and one detective turns to another and says, "Another junkie that got a hot load!"

But drug overdoses aren't really like that

The National Center for Health Statistics, the number crunchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010. The  drugs that are pushing the statistics up are prescription drugs, especially opioid analgesics (painkillers).

The CDC offers this overview of the commonly abused drugs.

The most recent data was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, by Jones CM, Mack KA, Paulozzi LJ. Pharmaceutical Overdose Deaths, United States, 2010. JAMA. 2013;309(7):657-659. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.272.

The numbers are staggering

Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990, and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses, and most of these deaths were caused by prescription drugs.

Although many types of prescription drugs are abused, there is currently a growing, deadly epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse. Nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by prescription painkillers—also called opioid pain relievers. The unprecedented rise in overdose deaths in the US parallels a 300% increase since 1999 in the sale of these strong painkillers.* These drugs were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, more than cocaine and heroin combined.*

The misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers was responsible for more than 475,000 emergency department visits in 2009, a number that nearly doubled in just five years.*

More than 12 million people reported using prescription painkillers nonmedically in 2010, that is: using them without a prescription or for the feeling they cause.*

* see: Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses for details.

Further reading: Get the Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses, as a free PDF report.