Prescription opioids are often prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. They are a major driver of overdose deaths for two reasons. First, they are highly addictive. Second, taking just a little too much suppresses breathing and can be fatal.

Drugs most commonly involved in opioid overdose deaths include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin).

A slippery slope

People who take prescription opioids can become physically dependent after a few days or weeks of use. Once dependent, it can be hard to stop.

Sales of these drugs nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, and overdose deaths quadrupled in lockstep. In 2013, about 2 million Americans abused prescription opioids.

In 2012, U.S. retail pharmacies dispensed more than 259 million opioid prescriptions—enough to give every adult their own bottle of pills. Yet there has been no change in the amount of pain people say they experience. In addition, prescription opioids are not proven to have long-term benefits for non-cancer pain. Problematic prescribing practices are a leading contributor to this epidemic. Safe and informed prescribing practices can help stop it.

"People who take prescription opioids can become physically dependent after a few days or weeks of use. Once dependent, it can be hard to stop."

Cities and states across our country have taken steps to improve opioid prescribing practices, including regulating pain clinics, instituting prescribing guidelines, using systems to identify fraudulent prescriptions and improving access to naloxone—the antidote to opioid overdose.

New solutions

Another promising solution is the use of state prescription drug monitoring programs. These give health care providers information to improve patient safety and prevent drug misuse and death. At the same time, they preserve patient access to safe and effective pain treatment.

This is done by providing accurate, timely patient prescription histories. Providers can check whether patients obtain prescriptions from other prescribers or take drugs that might interact dangerously with those being prescribed. When needed, patients can be referred for opioid addiction treatment.

Reversing this epidemic requires a broad approach. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Burwell, has made addressing opioid abuse, dependence and overdose a priority—work is underway at multiple agencies. Efforts are beginning to show results as we’ve seen a modest decline in prescription opioid-related deaths. But urgent action is still needed. Instead of three months of silence, I hope to see urgency daily, in every state and in every medical practice to curb this epidemic.

For more information about prescription medication abuse and dependence, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends:

Learn the signs of prescription drug use disorders:

If you or someone you know is struggling with a prescription drug use disorder, help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

  • National Treatment Referral Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD)

  • National Substance Abuse Treatment Locator: