Drugs Most Frequently Involved in Drug Overdose Deaths: United States, 2011–2016

Questions for Lead Author Holly Hedegaard, M.D., M.S.P.H., Health Statistician, and author of “Drugs Most Frequently Involved in Drug Overdose Deaths: United States, 2011–2016.”

Q: Is there a specific finding in this report that surprised you?

HH: During the six years of the study, the relative ranking of the drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths changed. In 2011, the drug most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths was oxycodone, in 2012-2015 was heroin and in 2016 was fentanyl. In 2016, fentanyl was involved in nearly 30% of the drug overdose deaths in the United States.

The drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths also varied by the intent of the death. In 2016, the drugs most frequently involved in unintentional (accidental) drug overdose deaths were fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, while the drugs most frequently mentioned in suicides by drug overdose were oxycodone, diphenhydramine, hydrocodone, and alprazolam.


Q: How is the data in this report different from the recently released drug overdose data brief and provisional drug overdose numbers produced by NCHS?

HH: The drug overdose data brief and the provisional drug overdose numbers produced by NCHS involve analysis of death certificate data coded using the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision (ICD-10). One limitation of this classification system is that, with a few exceptions, ICD–10 codes reflect broad categories of drugs rather than unique specific drugs.

In the National Vital Statistics Report, NCHS uses data from the literal text on death certificates to identify the specific drugs involved in the death. Using this method, we can look at the number of deaths involving specific drugs, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, or fentanyl, for example, rather than be limited to the broader categories found with ICD-10 coded data, such as natural and semi-synthetic opioids or synthetic opioids other than methadone.


Q: What did your report find on the percentage of drug overdose deaths mentioning at least one specific drug or substance?

HH: Using the literal text to identify the specific drugs involved is dependent on whether or not the specific drugs are reported on the death certificate. The specificity of reporting has improved in recent years. In 2011, the specific drugs or drug classes involved were reported for 78% of drug overdose deaths; in 2016, the reporting increased to nearly 88% of drug overdose deaths.


Q: Do you have data that goes further back than 2011?

HH:  A previous report looked at the drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths in 2010-2014. That report is available at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr65/nvsr65_10.pdf


Q: Do you have data on drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths that goes up to 2017?  If not, when do you expect that will be available?

NCHS does not currently have information on the drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths in 2017. NCHS is currently preparing the data files for analysis. The results for 2017 will be available in 2019.


Q: What is the take home message for this report?

HH: The patterns in the specific drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths can change from year to year. Complete and accurate reporting in the literal text on death certificates of the specific drugs involved provides critical information needed for understanding and preventing drug overdose deaths.

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