The Hidden Overdose Story

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 - 4:27am

Prescription Painkiller Overdoses Outweigh Heroin and Cocaine Combined

Despite all the headlines about heroin overdoses, the misuse of prescription painkillers is an even bigger problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 20 people in the United States, ages 12 and older, have used prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons, with nearly 15,000 people dying each year from overdosing on these drugs. This outweighs the combined number of deaths from heroin and cocaine overdoses.

Misused painkillers include such drugs as hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (Oxycotin®), oxymorphone (Opana®) and Fentanyl. In 2009, there were almost a half a million hospital emergency room visits due to the misuse or abuse of these products, costing up to $72.5 billion a year.

Another interesting fact is that middle-aged adults die from prescription painkiller overdose at a higher rate than other age groups. Many more men than women die of overdoses. While it is true that heroin overdoses have been increasing and are still a very serious problem, the misuse and abuse of painkillers is a much larger problem.

In Dane County we have seen a dramatic increase in poisonings over the last 10 years, and the numbers have now surpassed motor vehicle crashes as a leading cause of injury death. The majority of all poisonings (hospital visits and death) are due to drugs, (prescription, over the counter and illicit), but of particular concern are opiates. Prescription painkillers account for 61% of those that end up in the hospital for opiate poisoning, while only 25% are from heroin. These rates are highest for adults over 35 years of age.

The CDC offers several suggestions on what individuals can do. Prescription painkillers should only be used as directed by a health care provider. Problems begin to develop when these medications are accessible to younger family members and if they are shared with or sold to others. It is very important to make sure that leftover medications are securely stored until they can be disposed of properly. Proper disposal does NOT include flushing them down the toilet or putting them in the trash.

Fortunately, in Dane County, the MedDrop program now has four permanent medication drop-off locations:

• Madison Police East Precinct, 809 South Thompson Drive
o Available 8am-4pm Monday-Friday
• Middleton Police Department, 7341 Donna Drive
o Available 24 hours in the lobby
• Fitchburg Police Department - 5520 Lacy Road
Available 7:30 am-4:30 pm Monday-Friday.
• Sun Prairie Police Department - 300 E. Main Street
Available 24 hours in the lobby

Another local response to this problem was recently announced by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. The county and city budgets, approved three weeks ago, include funds to coordinate an initiative to stop both heroin and prescription drug overdoses. These efforts will be coordinated by Safe Communities, a local public/private partnership that supports and sustains a range of safety initiatives through collaborations between area agencies, businesses, and neighborhood organizations.

The next steps include a kick-off planning event after the first of the year to bring together multidisciplinary groups to locally address this growing epidemic.

For more information on painkiller overdoses nationally, see

For more local information on poisoning see the Featured Topics section on the home page of the Public Health website at

For information on the activities of Safe Communities, see

For more details on the MedDrop program, see


Public Health Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302