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12 Things You Need to Know About the Opioid Epidemic

You've surely heard the term "opioid epidemic" whether in the news or talking to friends and family. After all, the opioid epidemic, or the opioid crisis, has become a major media topic for the last several years. Unfortunately, many do not understand what the crisis is.

Specifically, the opioid epidemic refers to the growing number of deaths and hospitalizations caused by opioids, including both illicit and prescription drugs. In the U.S., the death rate from these drugs has skyrocketed to over 40,000 a year, or 115 deaths a day. More alarmingly, in the United States, drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, largely due to the opioid epidemic.

We must therefore understand opioids, their effects across the country, and the ways we can help combat the epidemic.

1. What is an opioid?

The term heroin may sound familiar to you -- which is a type of opioid. Prescription pain medication, including prescription opioids, or pain medications, are another type of opioid. These medications are also known as pain killers or pain pills.

For pain relief, doctors prescribe opioids or pain medication. Typically, doctors prescribe pain medications to adults. But, sometimes children or teens will be prescribed opioids if they have undergone surgery or been injured.

The main purpose of opioids is to reduce pain perception by binding to specific brain receptors.

2. What are the most common types of opioids?

In medicine, opioids are pain relievers made from either natural opium (poppies) or synthetic opiates. Natural opiates include:

  • Morphine

  • Codeine

In cough syrups and tablets, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is commonly combined with codeine.

Synthetic opioids include:

  • Fentanyl

  • Heroin

  • Hydrocodone with Tylenol (Lorcet, Lortab, Vicodin)

  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)

  • Meperidine (Demerol)

  • Methadone

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)

  • Oxycodone with Tylenol (Percocet)

  • Oxycodone with aspirin (Percodan)

3. How do prescription opioids affect the brain?

A large number of brain cells, spinal cord cells, and other organs in the body contain opioid receptors that are activated when opioids are absorbed through them. The opioids block the pain signals from the brain to the body by attaching to these receptors and releasing large amounts of dopamine into the body. When the user experiences this release, a desire to take the drug is strengthened, and they are motivated to repeat it.

4. What are the risks and side-effects of opioid use?

Pain relievers and tranquilizers are short-term pain relievers and mood enhancers. Unfortunately, opioids can also cause harm, including:

  • Drowsiness

  • Confusion

  • Nausea

  • Constipation

  • Euphoria

  • Slowed breathing

Slowed breathing can result from opioid misuse, and hypoxia, which occurs when too little oxygen reaches the brain, can ensue. Hyperoxia can cause short- and long-term psychological and neurological problems, including coma, permanent brain damage, and even death. Scientists are also testing whether opioid addiction can reverse any damage done to the brain after long-term use.

5. How do people misuse prescription opioids?

Taking prescription opioids for pain relief under a doctor's supervision for a short period of time can be safe, but they can also be abused. During misuse, people:

  • Not taking the medicine as prescribed

  • Taking another person's prescription medication

  • The purpose of taking the medicine is to get high from it

When an opioid prescription is misused, it can be swallowed as is. It is not uncommon for people to crush pills or open capsules, dissolve the powder in water, and inject the liquid. Some people will also snort the powder from crushed pills.

6. Can a person overdose on prescription opioids?

Yes. A person can overdose on opioids prescribed by a doctor.

If a person uses enough opioids to cause life-threatening symptoms or death, they have overdosed. As a result of overdosing on opioid medication, people's breathing may slow or stop entirely. As a result, less oxygen is delivered to the brain, which can lead to coma, irreversible brain damage, or death.

7. What are the symptoms and signs of opioid overdoes?

Using prescription opioids for a prolonged period of time can lead to addiction and overdose. Death due to opioid overdose can occur suddenly, as evidenced by slowed breathing.

Even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can have a number of side effects:

  • You might need to take more pills to achieve the same level of pain relief because of tolerance

  • You experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping a medication if you are physically dependent on it

  • Sensitivity to pain is increased

  • Itching and sweating

  • Constipation

  • Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth

  • Sleepiness and dizziness

  • Confusion

  • Depression

  • Testosterone levels that are low can affect sex drive, energy, and strength

An estimated one in four primary care patients who receive prescription opioids long-term struggle with addiction.

8. How can an opioid overdose be treated?

The most important thing to do if you suspect someone has overdosed is to call 911 so that immediate medical assistance can be provided. As soon as medical personnel arrives, they will administer naloxone.

When given right away, naloxone can treat opioid overdoses. This drug blocks the effects of opioid drugs by binding rapidly to opioid receptors. Naloxone is offered as either an injectable (needle) solution or nasal sprays (NARCAN® Nasal Spray and KLOXXADO®).

9. How big a problem is the opioid epidemic?

Currently, the United States faces one of the worst drug crises in its history. There are more than 1,300 opioid-related overdose deaths each week in the United States, a number that has increased significantly since the COVID-19 epidemic began. At the same time, millions of Americans are addicted to opioids.

There has been a sixfold increase in opioid-related overdose deaths since 1999.

Nearly fifty thousand people died from opioid overdoses in 2019, which is the most recent year for which full data is available. This is seven times more than the number of U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11.

According to the CDC, there will be 69,710 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020. Between 2015 and 2017, opioid deaths contributed to a historic, three-year decline in life expectancy in the United States; after a short reprieve, life expectancy declined again in 2020.

10. Who does the opioid epidemic affect?

Despite what the media portrays, opioid addiction is not limited to big cities. Rural communities, with limited employment opportunities and high levels of isolation, are more affected by the opioid epidemic. In rural areas, the opioid death rate among 18-to-25-year-olds and females quadrupled between 1999 and 2015.

In addition, the opioid epidemic affects a wide range of people from all walks of life, including teens, seniors, veterans, and members of the LGBTQ community.

11. How did this happen?

This issue is believed to have originated in the late 1990s. During the search for new painkillers, pharmaceutical companies began strongly recommending synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids to doctors. According to these companies, these drugs were either less addictive or non-addictive than Morphine, and there weren’t dangerous side effects.

Seeing no adverse effects from these drugs, doctors began recommending opioid pain relievers to patients. By promoting prescription opioids, this growth directly pushed the distribution of opioids to the levels that we’re experiencing today.

12. Where can I go if I’m addicted?

Defeating the opioid epidemic won't be easy, and it will take everyone working together. A person's life can be saved if they are aware of the dangers, signs, and symptoms of opioid abuse. And, you can also remove the stigma associated with addiction by talking openly with your loved ones.

For individuals and families facing a mental health or substance use challenge, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline is a free, confidential service available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you need assistance, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Or, consider contacting a treatment provider as soon as possible if you or a loved one shows signs of addiction.

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