How Many People Die From Prescription Drugs?Prescription medications are consumed by tens of millions of Americans each day and current figures show that medication-related deaths are on the rise. Unfortunately, significant numbers of people take more of their prescribed medications than their doctors intended. In addition, significant numbers of people take prescription drugs with no medical consent at all. These practices increase the odds of overdose and death.

Which Prescription Medications Provide the Biggest Risk?

When taken in excessive amounts or without proper oversight, a number of medications are capable of producing life-threatening changes in normal body function. Many of these medications are opioid substances[i] derived from a plant called the opium poppy. Opioids are widely prescribed to ease the effects of moderate and severe pain. They also play a role in certain forms of addiction treatment. Well-known examples of prescription drugs in this category include:

  • Oxycodone (the main active ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan)
  • Hydrocodone (the main active ingredient in Vicodin, Lorcet and Lortab)
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Tramadol
  • Methadone

Death is also a potential outcome for people who misuse or abuse benzodiazepine tranquilizers. Doctors prescribe these medications for people affected by issues such as anxiety and seizures. Common examples of benzodiazepines[ii] include:

  • Lorazepam (sold under the brand name Ativan)
  • Diazepam (sold under the brand name Valium)
  • Alprazolam (sold under the brand name Xanax)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (sold under the brand name Librium)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regularly track the number of people who die from the effects of opioid and benzodiazepine medications. This tracking includes the number who die from using specific types of these medications. The CDC engages in this detailed recordkeeping because opioids and benzodiazepines account for the clear majority of America’s fatal prescription drug overdoses.

Prescription Drug Fatalities

The CDC’s latest figures for the total number of U.S. prescription drug fatalities[iii] cover the years 2015 and 2016. These figures were reported along with deaths attributed to illicit/illegal drugs, in part because certain medications pose just as much of an overdose risk as drugs when used improperly.

In 2016, 20,145 people died after consuming substances classified as synthetic opioids. The predominant member of the synthetic opioid family is fentanyl, a powerful medication that far outstrips the potency of heroin. In addition, this group includes several substances based on the same chemical formula as fentanyl.

Another 14,427 people died after consuming substances classified as natural or semisynthetic opioids. This category includes hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and tramadol. In addition, 3,314 people died after using methadone, a medication frequently used in opioid maintenance programs. The CDC’s latest statistics for benzodiazepine fatalities are for the year 2015. In that year, roughly 9,000 people died after consuming one of these medications.

Need More Information?

Call now to be connected with one of our friendly, helpful admissions specialists.

 (800) 270-4315Confidential Call


Which Medications Are Linked to the Most Fatalities?

The CDC’s most recently released figures for specific causes of medication-related fatalities cover the year 2014[iv]. In that year, medications containing oxycodone accounted for the largest number of deaths (5,417). In descending order, the other medications linked most closely to fatal outcomes were:

  • Alprazolam (4,217 deaths)
  • Fentanyl (4,200 deaths)
  • Morphine (4,022 deaths)
  • Methadone (3,495 deaths)
  • Hydrocodone (3,274 deaths)
  • Diazepam (1,729 deaths)

H2 Problems with Estimating Fentanyl Fatalities

Name-brand fentanyl products are created in pharmaceutical laboratories under closely monitored conditions. However, in the last few years, illicit/illegal manufacturers have begun to release larger and larger amounts of black-market fentanyl. Unlike medication produced in a controlled, FDA-approved environment, these black-market products do not receive any type of scrutiny from qualified pharmaceutical professionals or regulators.

Any unlicensed fentanyl product may lack the purity of the legitimately produced medication. Black-market fentanyl may contain contaminants or other mind- and body-altering substances, either in addition to the medication or instead of the medication. This reality can lead to an increase in overdose risks and the chances of dying from an overdose.

Researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse report that most of the recent surge in fatal fentanyl/synthetic opioid overdoses is related to increasing consumption of black-market fentanyl[v], not the legitimately produced medication. While these fatalities officially count as fentanyl-related, no one can say for sure what other substances may have contributed to deadly outcomes in affected users.

Additional Facts to Consider

There are other factors that make it difficult to determine just how many people die from prescription drug use each year. One problem is the fact that heroin turns into morphine after going through processing inside the human body. Among other things, this means that a substantial number of deaths reported as morphine-related may instead stem from the use of heroin.

Another thing to consider is the fact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not track every single potential source of medication- or drug-related fatalities. Instead, they focus their recording and reporting efforts on those substances that do the most harm to the most people. Any number of other prescription substances may cause at least a few deaths each year through accidental or intentional overdose. However, the CDC does not release figures on these substances on a regular basis, so there is no up-to-date estimate on the extent of their fatality-related impact.

Deaths Are on the Rise

One thing is for certain: America in the 21st century has seen a steep rise in the number of people dying from prescription medication overdoses, as well as illicit/illegal drug overdoses. The steepest rise is in the consumption of fentanyl and its chemical relatives. From 2013 to 2016, the number of deaths attributable to these substances increased by well over 300 percent.

Getting Help for Prescription Drug Problems

Effective, modern treatments are available for substance abuse and addiction, including problems related to consumption of prescription drugs. At Transformations Treatment Center, we specialize in individualized treatment for all our clients enrolled in our addiction treatment programs. By relying on best practices, we strive to provide all clients with the best possible tools for achieving long-term sobriety.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Opioids
  2. University of Maryland – Center for Substance Abuse Research: Benzodiazepines
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Overdose Death Rates
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Vital Statistics Reports – Drugs Most Frequently Involved in Drug Overdose Deaths: United States, 2010-2014
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Research on the Use and Misuse of Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids