The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a publicly accessible database on causes of mortality, which is used here to shed light on the drug overdose epidemic currently ravaging the nation. Using the CDC’s data from 10-plus years as well as recently released figures for 2011, we’ve created the following graphics to visualize multiple facets of this epidemic.

States with Significant Number of Overdoses

West Virginia suffers from what is by far the highest level of drug overdose-related deaths in the country – almost double that of the runner-up, Nevada. Most deaths involving drugs as a contributing cause are linked to prescription opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Dilaudid, or benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Klonopin. This grim pattern repeats itself throughout many states.

Smaller numbers of overdose deaths are connected to use of methadone, heroin, cocaine, and stimulants. Some deaths may be counted more than once, due to the involvement of multiple drugs – for instance, use of benzodiazepines can make it much easier to overdose on opioids. One trend is clear: highly addictive opioids are a pervasive contributing factor to this overdose epidemic.

Drug Overdoses Increasing

Regardless of region, prescription opioids continue to top the charts as the leading drug linked to overdoses – usually followed closely by heroin. While stimulants such as methamphetamine and Adderall are also prominent in the West and South, various types of opiates altogether make up the bulk of drugs connected with overdose deaths.

Most disturbingly, the past decade shows an overall upward trend in drug overdose-related deaths. In some areas, the number of such deaths has more than doubled over the past 10-plus years.

Top 10 States by Drug Type

Rural areas such as West Virginia and Utah show the highest number of overdoses involving prescription opioids and benzodiazepines. Coastal and urban areas such as New Jersey, Illinois, and California have the greatest number of overdoses related to heroin, cocaine, and stimulants, respectively. Clearly there is a pronounced geographical division with regards to the types of drugs that are most often involved in overdoses.

Weekends vs. Weekdays

Regardless of the drug involved, overdose-related deaths reach a low on Tuesday and Wednesday, and build up to a peak on Saturday and Sunday. Over the past decade, fewer than 45,000 overdose-related deaths occurred on a Tuesday, while more than 55,000 such deaths took place on a Saturday. The weekends are, without a doubt, one of the most dangerous times for overdoses involving any substance.

A National Trend

Since 1999, overall U.S. drug overdose-related deaths have skyrocketed. Deaths involving every class of drug have seen a sharp increase – led by benzodiazepines (growing from less than 10,000 drug-related deaths to nearly 30,000), followed by cocaine, with the remainder of deaths being linked to a variety of opioids. All of these drugs, whether prescription or illicit, are involved in thousands of deaths yearly.


Drug-related deaths from 2000 to 2011 were retrieved from the CDC WONDER database, with the following ICD-10 codes: T40.1, T40.2, T40.3, T40.4, T40.5, T40.6, T42.4, and T43.6. Some deaths are counted more than once, when multiple classes of drugs were involved. Please see this PDF for the specific drugs covered by each category.

The CDC WONDER data differentiates between “Other opioids”, “Other synthetic narcotics,” and “Other and unspecified narcotics.” While both categories generally refer to prescription opiates, “Other opioids” are substances derived from the opium poppy, and “Synthetic narcotics” are entirely man-made substances. “Other and unspecified narcotics” refer to narcotic-related deaths where a specific substance was not listed in the case of a given drug-related death.

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