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Prescription painkiller overdoses surpass 'street' drugs

Across the country, health experts are battling a growing prescription drug epidemic that is killing almost 15,000 people a year – more fatalities than from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo reports and addiction specialist Dr. Heather M. Lewerenz discusses the problem.

Jennifer Cassidy still sees a healthy young man when she looks at old photos of her brother, Aaron.

He was that guy in high school that, you know, starting pitcher for the baseball team, starting football defensive end,” she says. “Very popular.”

Later on, as a successful insurance salesman who loved to work out, he went to a doctor for help with old sports injuries. Aaron, then 33, was given a prescription for the painkiller Vicodin. Although he did not have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, Cassidy tells TODAY, he developed a powerful addiction to painkillers.

“It came out of nowhere,” Cassidy told TODAY’s Mara Schiavocampo in a report broadcast Monday.

He desperately wanted to kick the drug habit, but after three years, he died in his sleep of a prescription drug overdose at age 36, according to TODAY.

“We still beat ourselves up because we feel like we failed him,” an emotional Cassidy says in the report. “He was so special. We just feel like we failed him.”

Deaths like Aaron’s from prescription drug overdoses have skyrocketed in recent years, creating what experts call the nation’s fastest growing drug problem, according to TODAY. The growing epidemic is claiming the lives of almost 15,000 people a year, according to TODAY.

Many people aren’t taking the pills to get high, but are following a doctor’s orders to help them heal and accidentally developing an unshakable addiction to powerful medications, the report said. Prescription drug overdoses, mostly from pain pills, kill more people than heroin and cocaine combined, more than triple the number from a decade ago, in what experts call an epidemic.

Dr. Ernest Patti of the American College of Emergency Physicians says paramedics will “bring the patient in and they'll bring in pill bottles, and they're always prescription medications. This is what they overdosed on.”

In the last decade, prescriptions for powerful painkillers have skyrocketed, after the medical community promised to do a better job treating pain. In 2010, the amount of painkillers sold was four times greater than in 1999, according to TODAY.

“Today the emphasis is on relieving pain, relieving it quickly and relieving it adequately for the patient,” Patti says.

To help combat the problem, the White House is calling for more education, better monitoring systems and stronger enforcement of regulations covering powerful opiate painkillers.

“Essentially, they're synthetic heroin,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells TODAY. “I don't think we've really recognized that. And now, of course, we're paying a terrible price in this country for that.”

Cassidy is speaking out to help others.

“The way the system is set up, unfortunately, makes it very easy for unsuspecting people to become addicts,” she says. “There are so many people dying this way and there's very little talk about it.”

There are misperceptions that drugs like Vicodin are safe because they are prescribed by a physician, but they're as dangerous as street drugs, Dr. Heather Lewerenz told TODAY Monday. They should only be used for the short term. If you suspect a family member has a problem, or are worried about yourself, Lewerenz offered signs to watch for:

  • Missing work
  • Pursuing the drugs at the expense of other activities
  • Getting into trouble while driving or other legal problems
  • Behavior changes

"There are a lot of treatments available, including medications," Lewerenz told TODAY. "There are pain medications that are different. Of course, there are the inflammatories and also there are pain managment strategies that don't involve medications that have been shown to be successful."

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