In 2010, there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths nationwide, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medication, mostly prescription drugs, was involved in nearly 60 percent of overdose deaths that year, overshadowing deaths from illicit narcotics.
"The big picture is that this is a big problem that has gotten much worse quickly," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC's director.
The report appears in Tuesday's Journal of the American Medical Association.
As in previous recent years, opioid drugs — which include OxyContin and Vicodin — were the biggest problem, contributing to 3 out of 4 medication overdose deaths.
Frieden said many doctors and patients don't realize how addictive these drugs can be, and that they're too often prescribed for pain that can be managed with less risky drugs.
They're useful for cancer, "but if you've got terrible back pain or terrible migraines," using these addictive drugs can be dangerous, he said.
Medication-related deaths accounted for 22,134 of the drug overdose deaths in 2010.
Anti-anxiety drugs including Valium were among common causes of medication-related deaths, involved in almost 30 percent of them. Among the medication-related deaths, 17 percent were suicides.
Frieden said the data show a need for more prescription drug monitoring programs at the state level, and more laws shutting down "pill mills" — doctor offices and pharmacies that over-prescribe addictive medicines.