By Steven Reinberg
FRIDAY, Dec. 18, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Drug overdose deaths reached record highs in 2014, fueled largely by the abuse of narcotic painkillers and heroin, U.S. health officials reported Friday.
In 2014, more than 47,000 Americans died from drug overdoses -- a 14 percent increase over 2013. Since 2000, nearly half a million people have died from overdoses, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than six out of 10 drug overdose deaths involved narcotics, including prescription painkillers and heroin, the report found.
"The increasing number of deaths from opioid [narcotic] overdose is alarming," CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement.
"The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders," he said.
Oxycodone, which includes the brand-name drug OxyContin, and hydrocodone, which includes the brand-name drug Vicodin, continue to be among the most commonly prescribed narcotic painkillers, and are responsible for more overdose deaths than any other narcotic, the researchers found.
Deaths from these drugs increased 9 percent -- 813 more deaths in 2014 than 2013, according to the report released Dec. 18 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
In 2014, deaths from overdoses of heroin also increased, continuing a sharp rise that has tripled since 2010, the researchers said.
In addition, deaths from illegally made fentanyl -- a potent narcotic added to or sold as heroin -- are also increasing, the CDC reports.
More men and women of nearly all ages, as well whites and blacks, are dying from drug overdoses, the researchers found.
According to the report, rates of drug overdose deaths were highest in five states: West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio.
Two trends appear to be driving the overdose epidemic: a 15-year increase in deaths from prescription narcotic painkiller overdoses and a recent surge in overdoses from illegal drugs, mainly heroin. Both of these trends worsened in 2014, the researchers added.
The largest increase in narcotic overdose deaths were from synthetic narcotics, not including methadone. These drugs caused 5,500 deaths in 2014, almost twice as many as in 2013.
Many of these overdoses involved illegally made fentanyl, researchers say.
In addition, deaths from overdoses of heroin increased 26 percent, accounting for more than 10,500 deaths in 2014.
Abuse of prescription narcotic painkillers is the biggest risk factor for going on to use heroin -- especially among young adults, the CDC found.
The switch to heroin is fueled by the increased availability of heroin, its relatively low price compared to prescription narcotics and the high purity of the heroin being sold, the researchers reported.
According to the CDC, the way to curb the epidemic of drug abuse is to limit the amount of narcotic painkillers being prescribed; to increase the availability of addiction treatment, including medication-assisted treatment; and to expand access and use of naloxone -- a drug that reverses the symptoms of a narcotic overdose.
"This report also shows how important it is that law enforcement intensify efforts to reduce the availability of heroin, illegal fentanyl and other illegal opioids," Frieden added.