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Painkillers and anti-anxiety meds are a deadly mix for many women.

Middle-aged white women are at greatest risk.

Over a 15-year span, deaths from opiate overdose have risen 400 percent among middle-aged white women in America. Most of the deaths are attributed to accidental overdose. Some are suicides fueled by addiction and side effects of drugs. The dangers are even greater for women taking painkillers in combination with anti-anxiety medications or alcohol.

In an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, the Washington Post found an alarming increase in death rates for white women past the age of 35.

SDepressedWomanPills(2).jpgeeking relief from the symptoms of injury, menopause, arthritis, lupus and other conditions common in middle age, they are frequently prescribed opiates such as hydrocone or Vicodin. And white women are more likely than women of color to be given such prescriptions.

Overuse or misuse of opiates can lead to depression, sleeplessness and other side effects, which in turn leads to treatment for anxiety and mood disorders. Women are five times as likely as men to be prescribed both opiates (painkillers) and benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax), a potentially fatal tandem. Many women also "self-medicate" with alcohol in addition to these prescriptions. All three of these depress the central nervous system. Any combination can slow the heart rate and breathing to dangerous levels.

Sounding the alarm about a public health crisis

Federal officials are warning doctors and patients about the risks of opiate addiction and in particular the overdose dangers of combining opiates and benzodiazepine. In many cases, different doctors are writing the scrips without knowing that the patient is already taking painkillers or anti-anxiety meds.

Franklin County and Central Ohio have seen an increase in the mortality rate of middle-aged women during the 15 years covered by the study. Some of the increase is likely due to the surge in opiate prescriptions and the associated problems.

The CDC has issued new guidelines for opioids in general, including a warning about prescribing them with benzodiazepine. The commissioner of the FDA likewise urges health care providers to evaluate whether the benefits of overlapping these drugs outweigh the risks for individual patients. Hopefully the increased awareness will reverse the trend of addiction, overdose and suicides.

Source: Washington Post, "Risky Alone, Deadly Together"

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