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U.S. Drug Overdose Deaths Surpass 100,000 in 2021, New CDC Data Shows

Posted on May 12, 2022

Drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 last year, according to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

After accounting for underreporting, the CDC predicts there were over 107,600 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. over the course of 2021. That is a fairly significant annual increase of 15%, from over 93,600 deaths in 2020. Despite the increase, it may suggest the surge in overdose deaths following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is leveling out—from 2019 to 2020 there was a 30% jump in drug overdose deaths. Whether the yearly increase will continue to slow through 2022 remains to be seen, however.

Of the 107,600+ drug overdose deaths, 75% were opioid related, accounting for 80,000 of the total overdose deaths in 2021. Similar to the rise in general drug overdoses, opioid related overdoses have also increased sharply since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 20,000 more people died in 2020 than in 2019 from opioid overdose, increasing from 2019’s 50,000+ opioid overdose deaths to 2020’s 70,000. This spike may also be slowly leveling out, though the numbers remain troubling—2021 had approximately 10,000 more opioid overdose deaths than 2020.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, had the following comment on the high proportion of opioid overdoses, “Previously, prescription drug misuse and heroin use were the primary drivers of overdose deaths. However, as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids began to infiltrate the drug market several years ago, we started to see how expanding exposure of a profitable, easy-to-make, and incredibly dangerous drug dramatically increased risk and vulnerability to drug overdose deaths.”

Fentanyl also appears to factor into a recent increase in drug overdose deaths among teens, according to new research. Drug overdose deaths among teens nearly doubled in 2020 over 2019, then increased by another 20% in 2021. The study, Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among U.S. Adolescents, notes that, “[s]ince 2015, fentanyls have been increasingly added to counterfeit pills resembling prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and other drugs, which adolescents may not identify as dangerous…”

Dr. Volkow concurs, “These past three years we have seen an increase of contamination of other illicit drugs with fentanyl, be it cocaine, be methamphetamine, and more recently, illicit prescription drugs.” The ubiquitous presence of fentanyls in other drugs contributes to an increase in drug overdoses generally, as “just one pill” is “contaminated” with the substance and leads to the death of the drug uses.

Review the study “Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among U.S. Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021” via the JAMA Network and the CDC’s Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts here.