Chicago Sun-Times / MONIFA THOMAS

David and Gail Katz thought their 25-year-old son Daniel had finally turned the corner on his addiction to prescription painkillers after a year and a half of sobriety.

Then, over a two-week period in 2007, Daniel's drug use suddenly "spiraled out of control," his parents said.

On June 15, 2007, Daniel, a well-liked former hockey player, died at his best friend's house after overdosing on OxyContin and cocaine.

"We heard that he had told his girlfriend that he wanted to start again and turn his life around and that night, he overdosed," Gail Katz said.

Some Think It's Harmless

The Katzes think Daniel started abusing painkillers in college after experimenting with marijuana and alcohol in high school. Though they sought treatment for him several times, Daniel "just couldn't stay sober," Gail Katz said.

The Highland Park couple has since made a full-time job of educating teens and their parents about prescription drug abuse, the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States.

Deaths from unintentional drug overdoses in the United States have increased five-fold over the last two decades, claiming more lives than any other type of accidental injury except car accidents, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year.

Largely driving the trend is rampant misuse of prescription drugs, particularly painkillers such as OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone) and fentanyl.

Abuse of prescription painkillers was responsible for more overdose deaths in 2007 than heroin and cocaine combined, the CDC says.

Rates of treatment admissions for abuse of painkillers and other non-heroin opiates also rose 345 percent nationwide between 1998 and 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Five years ago, 70 percent of the people we saw here were heroin addicts. Today, 70 percent of the people we see are prescription drug users," said Jake Epperly, president of New Hope Recovery Center in Lincoln Park.

Prescription painkillers, known as opioids, are synthetic versions of opium used to relieve moderate to severe chronic pain.

But in excess quantities, these drugs can suppress a person's ability to breathe. They're especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol or other drugs.

Experts say too many people, especially teenagers, mistakenly think that prescription drugs are safer and less addictive than street drugs, even when used improperly.

"People think, 'It comes from the doctor. Mom took it for a toothache or a broken bone. How bad can it be?' " said Sally Thoren, executive director of Gateway Foundation, which provides substance-abuse treatment at locations throughout the state.

The surge in prescription drug abuse followed a shift in doctors' prescribing habits that began in the 1990s. Recognizing that they needed to do a better job of managing chronic pain than they had in the past, doctors started writing more prescriptions for pain drugs. Greater availability opened the door for more widespread abuse, said Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

"In the 80s and early 90s, there was so little pain medicine prescribed," Kane-Willis said. "Now, the pendulum has kind of swung the other way."

Docs Prescribe More

Rather than denying pain medication to people who need it, Kane-Willis said more doctors need to have frank conversations with their patients about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Also contributing to the problem are rogue online pharmacies, operating mostly outside the United States, which provide medications to patients who have never seen or talked to a doctor.

Street gangs, too, have become increasingly involved in prescription drug diversion, according to the Chicago field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Dan, a 30-year-old businessman from Chicago who asked that his full name not be used, has struggled with his addiction to Vicodin for the last eight years. He was first prescribed the drug after a motorcycle accident in 2002.

Before long, Dan, whose family has a history of substance abuse, was going from hospital to hospital, pretending to have shoulder pain, kidney stones and other ailments in order to score more painkillers. At one point, he took as many as 60 to 70 pills a day, often with alcohol.

Monitoring Program

"It's to the point where you can get pain medication as easily as you can get liquor," he said. "All you have to do is say, 'I'm experiencing pain,' and automatically, they're going to give you pain medication to control that. You can use that doctor for probably a month or two before they catch on."

After several failed attempts to get clean on his own, a near-fatal overdose in August led Dan to seek help for his addiction at New Hope Recovery Center. Now, he's cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind him.

"I can't say I'm going to be clean for the rest of my life, but I can promise that when I lay my head down on my pillow tonight, I'll be clean," he said. "I'm taking it one day at a time."

Since 2000, Illinois has had a prescription drug monitoring program that tracks prescriptions filled at retail pharmacies. But the onus is mostly on health care providers to check the database to see whether there's a pattern of doctor-shopping with their patients.

How To Dispose Of Drugs

Most people who abuse prescription drugs get them from a friend or family member. To dispose of unused or expired medications safely, don't just throw them in the trash or the toilet, said Janet Engle, head of the department of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Instead, remove the medication from its original container, mix it with an undesirable substance like kitty litter or coffee grounds and then throw it out in a nondescript container that can be sealed.

Earlier this year, the DEA and Walgreens launched safe drug disposal programs. Disposemymeds.org is also a resource for finding drug take-back programs in your area.

David Katz said prescription drug abuse will continue to be a widespread problem until the public recognizes that misuse of these drugs can have fatal consequences, as it did for his son.

"Nobody wants to think this could happen to them, but it can," Katz said.