Drug abuse is rampant in our country – so much so, in fact, that it’s a leading cause of death. Accidental overdoses claim far more lives than most people realize. It surpasses car accidents, falls and accidental injuries in terms of overall death toll. In 2014 alone, for example, more than 42,000 people across the country were killed by drugs.

And those numbers appear to be rising. Fatal drug overdose rates climbed from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 in 1999 to 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015.

Understanding the numbers

So what’s behind this tragic prevalence of preventable deaths? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Drug abuse affects a broad segment of the population, from rebellious teens to homeless addicts to middle-class Americans. Surprisingly, baby boomers in the 55-64 age range experience the highest rates of fatal overdose.

Street drugs aren’t the only culprits. Increasingly, prescription drug abuse plagues people of all ages and backgrounds. An injury or illness may lead to a legitimate need for painkillers. However, patients may soon find themselves dependent on powerful opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol. The addiction can quickly spiral out of control, and a fatal overdose can happen before the user even has a chance to seek help.

What you can do about it

If you suspect that a loved one has become addicted – whether to street drugs or prescription painkillers – don’t sit back until it’s too late. Help is available for those suffering from addictions. Gently and respectfully urge your loved one to get help, and take steps to ensure that they follow through – for example, by driving them to meetings, offering a helping hand and staying in close touch.

On the flip side, if you take potentially addictive prescription drugs for medical reasons, stay attuned to the risks. Work with your doctor to develop a plan for preventing dependency.