Deadly Pills: A National Epidemic

01/19/2013 at 04:00 PM EST

Deadly Pills: A National Epidemic
Jace Flom's mom dies two weeks after her birth of an overdose of prescription drugs
Grant Delin
Drugs are now the No. 1 accidental killer in the U.S., with the vast majority of deaths caused by prescription meds. This week, PEOPLE offers a look at how medicines that are now a part of everyday life can also turn families upside down forever.

The statistics are staggering, the medicines powerful and highly addictive: This year more Americans will die of drug over-doses than in any other type of accident – including car crashes. In most cases, those deaths are caused by pills in many people's medicine cabinets given to them by trusted doctors, left over from routine surgeries or prescribed to manage chronic conditions.

"Prescription drug overdoses are a serious nationwide problem," says Dr. Leonard Paulozzi of the C.D.C.'s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, "for which we haven't yet found a solution."

How did we get here? For the millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain, heavy-duty painkillers are the wonder drugs that help them lead more comfortable lives. But in the past 20 years, as opiate painkillers have become more routinely prescribed, the number of people dying from them – as a result of misuse or accidentally – has skyrocketed.

Often those deaths are due to bad interactions with other substances: Combined with alcohol some antidepressants can cause dangerous spikes in blood pressure, and mixing pain pills with a few drinks "can depress the brain," says Paulozzi, "and lead to death."

It's a problem even the drug industry acknowledges, says Sharon Brigner, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America: "These medicines can be an important tool – we tell anyone we talk to that medicines save and improve lives every day. But if misused, they can kill."

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