Heroin and cocaine can be deadly, but they pale in comparison to prescription painkillers that have reached epidemic levels, U.S. researchers reported Tuesday.

Overdoses from pain pills tripled over the past decade and account for more deaths that overdoses of heroin and cocaine combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2008, 14,800 people died from prescription painkillers in the U.S., mostly middle aged people. That's more than three times the 4,000 deaths in 1999.

Prescription drug abuse is a silent epidemic that is stealing thousands of lives and tearing apart communities and families across America, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement.

Health care providers and patients should be educated on the risks of prescription painkillers. And parents and grandparents can take time today to properly dispose of any unneeded or expired medications from the home and to talk to their kids about the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.