How Many People Die From Prescription Drugs?

Most experts believe prescription opioids have fueled the current opioid drug epidemic, although other classes of prescription drugs also cause overdose deaths. The National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects overdose information on many commonly used drugs. The following figures break down deaths by prescription drug categories.1,2

Opioid Pain Relievers

Includes ICD-10 codes for other prescription opioids (natural and semisynthetic) such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, methadone and other synthetic narcotics. Overall deaths in this category increased by 20% from 2014 to 2015 (11% female, 26% male).1,2

  • Total deaths: 22,598
  • Female: 8,786
  • Male: 13,812


  • Natural and semisynthetic opioids: 12,727
  • Female: 5,610
  • Male: 7,117
  • Aged 0-14: 48
  • Aged 15-24: 715
  • Aged 25-34: 2,327
  • Aged 35-44: 2,819
  • Aged 45-54: 3,479
  • Aged 55-64: 2,602
  • Older than 65: 736
  • Methadone: 3,301
  • Female: 1,362
  • Male: 1,939

Opioid Pain Relievers (other than synthetic opioids)

The ICD-10 code for hydrocodone and oxycodone are also counted in this total, so there is overlap. Overall deaths in this category increased by 4% from 2014 to 2015 (4% female, 3% male).1

  • Total deaths: 17,536
  • Female: 7,429
  • Male: 10,107


This category includes three of the most frequently prescribed and abused benzos: Valium (diazepam), Ativan (lorazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam), as well as nearly 20 others such as Klonopin (clonazepam).3 Overall deaths in this category increased by 11% from 2014 to 2015

(8% female, 12% male). More than 7,000 of the benzodiazepine deaths in 2015 involved opioids.1

  • Total deaths: 8,791
  • Female: 3,779
  • Male: 5,012

Most Common Prescription Drug-Related Overdose Deaths: 2014

Prescription drugs were responsible for five of the top 10 drug-related overdose deaths in 2014. Below are the number of deaths followed by the percentage of total drug overdose deaths, and additional statistics regarding concurrent substance use deaths.4

  • Oxycodone: 5,417, 11.5%
  • Alprazolam: 4,217, 9.0%
  • Methadone: 3,495, 7.4%
  • Hydrocodone: 3,274, 7.0%
  • Diazepam: 1,729, 3.7%

Additional Facts and Stats

  • More than 95% of drug deaths from alprazolam (e.g. Xanax) and diazepam (e.g. Valium) involved other drugs, with an average of more than two additional drugs.
  • In drug overdose deaths involving diazepam, only 3% mentioned no concurrent drug use, 22% mentioned one other drug, 62% mentioned two to four other drugs and 13% mentioned five or more other drugs.
  • Alprazolam was implicated in 26% of hydrocodone deaths, 23% of oxycodone deaths and 18% of methadone deaths.
  • Oxycodone was implicated in 30% of alprazolam deaths and 33% of diazepam deaths.
  • Concurrent use of oxycodone and alprazolam caused more than 1,000 overdose deaths.
  • Benzodiazepines were involved in more than 30% of drug overdose deaths involving opioid analgesics.
  • Alcohol involvement was mentioned in drug overdose deaths involving hydrocodone, oxycodone, alprazolam and diazepam.

It is nearly impossible to read a newspaper or tune into a television or radio broadcast without hearing about the opioid epidemic gripping America. From teens dying of heroin overdoses to older people accidentally overdosing on prescription medications, we are indeed in the midst of a public health crisis.

Prescription Drug Poisoning in Children: Accidental & Intentional

  • About 160 children visit hospital emergency rooms every day as a result of accidental medication overdoses.
  • In 2013, nearly 60,000 young children were seen in ERs across the country after ingesting pain relievers, prescription drugs or vitamins.
  • This happened because adults left the substances on the ground, in cabinets, in pill organizers, in purses/diaper bags or on countertops within the reach of children.5
  • Between 2000 and 2015, poison control centers received an average of more than 30 calls per day regarding children younger than 20 accidentally poisoned by overdoses of prescription opioids, which equates to 188,468 prescription opioid exposures. From 2006 to 2012, more than 22,000 children were treated at U.S. emergency departments for opioid poisoning.
  • The annual rate of opioid poisoning-related hospitalization increased by 165% from 1997-2012.
  • Most opioid exposures occurred at a residence (95.8%) and resulted from ingestion (98.4%).
  • Exposures were most common among children aged 0-5 (59.7%), followed by teenagers (29.9%).
  • The opioid medications most commonly implicated in exposure were hydrocodone (28.7%), oxycodone (17.6%) and codeine (16.5%).
  • Children younger than 5 accounted for 88.1% of buprenorphine exposures, and of these, 51% were hospitalized. Buprenorphine is a drug prescribed to adults to help treat opioid addiction.6,7

Child Overdose Deaths in Virginia: A review 41 child overdose deaths from 2009 to 2013 revealed prescription medications contributed to 68% of these deaths.

  • Methadone and oxycodone were the top two drugs followed by morphine, Benadryl, fentanyl, Prozac and hydrocodone.
  • Toddlers and teens were the two groups most vulnerable to overdoses in Virginia’s southern region.
  • Teens who died from overdoses were mostly white males aged 13-17.
  • In that demographic, 65% of the deaths were accidental overdoses and 27% were suicides.
  • Evidence shows boys were more likely to have a history of misusing medications including hydrocodone, oxycodone, Xanax, Klonopin, amphetamines, methadone and morphine.8

Child Overdose Deaths in Wisconsin: Seven children have died from drug overdoses in Milwaukee County in the past 19 months. Among the victims was a 4-year-old boy who died from an overdose of prescription pain medication or heroin, pending toxicology results. After a 3-year-old girl died, the couple’s other children told police their parents gave them all “chill pills” and put oxycodone in the toddler’s bottle. A 2-year-old boy died after swallowing pills found in his mother’s purse.9

While most of the blame for the prescription drug epidemic has been placed on opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, statistics paint a complex picture of polysubstance abuse. Many people combine drugs and take them with alcohol, increasing the risk of fatal overdoses.

This alarming fact, coupled with the high incidence of prescription opioid exposure in children, indicates that major prevention, education and intervention initiatives are required to help reduce these tragedies.

If you or someone you know is abusing prescription drugs, help is a phone call away at 844-876-5568.

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