An Overview of the Opioid Epidemic
America is in the grips of an Opioid Epidemic. 115 women and men die each day from opioid overdose. In 2017, doctors in the U.S. wrote 191 million opioid prescriptions for patients. Approximately 66% of drug-related deaths in 2016 were from an opioid. 197,000 Americans overdosed from prescription opioids between 1999 to 2016.
The victims of fatal overdoses caused by opioid use disorders are men and women who come from all walks of life. Some who have lost their lives to opioids are professionals, while others are parents, and many are spiritual and nurturing people. What was once called the “war on drugs” in minority and urban populations in previous decades has now become a public health epidemic mostly affecting suburban communities.
Furthermore, the number of opioid-related overdoses have increased five times since the late 90s. However, there is great variation between states. For example, Alabama’s rate of written opioid prescriptions per person is three times that of some other states. In contrast, Hawaii had the lowest rate of written prescriptions per person.
The CDC notes opioids kill more Americans than guns or breast cancer, and the opioid epidemic has decreased U.S. life expectancy.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are substances that are either derived from the Opium poppy or manufactured to mirror chemicals derived from the opium poppy. Opioids impact the body’s nervous system, specifically by interacting with or blocking the body’s natural opioid receptors. As a result, the body’s ability to transmit pain signals is compromised and endorphins (natural “feel-good” chemicals) are released, relieving pain and creating a euphoric high.
Opioids are typically prescribed for pain relief, such as that caused severe injuries or cancer, and when taken as prescribed are very effective. Once opioids enter the body, orally, nasally, or intravenously, they move through the bloodstream and into the brain. In the brain, the chemicals attach to the opioid receptors in the brain and other organs, releasing signals in the brain to stop pain.
Prescription Opioids And High Addiction Rates
The most common types of prescription opioids are semi-synthetic or synthetic, producing highly addictive, but damaging long-term effects when abused. Prescription opioids are some of the most widely abused opioids in America. Prescription opioids are typically taken orally and include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (Percocet)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
Opioids like Methadone are used to treat both pain or substance abuse disorders involving opioids. Methadone, however, is also very addictive.
Synthetic opioids are powerful but harmful substances. 50% of opioid-related deaths involved synthetic opioids in 2016. Drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil are highly dangerous synthetic opioids made in pharmaceutical and clandestine labs. Commonly abused synthetic opioids include:
Fentanyl is a powerful substance 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, is a highly lethal opioid that is 100 times stronger than fentanyl, and 10,000 times the potency of morphine.
Opioids are often cut, or mixed, with other illicit substances for added potency. For example, Heroin, fentanyl, or carfentanil are often mixed with cocaine—often times unknown to the user. This means someone can get heroin with fentanyl, or even more potent, carfentanil and not know what to expect once the combination of drugs hits their system. As a result of “cutting drugs”, many individuals with substance abuse disorders are much more likely to overdose and often do.
Who Is at Risk for Opioid Abuse?
Opioids impact not only the individuals with substance use disorders, but also their friends and families. Individuals most likely to suffer opioid abuse, or opioid-related deaths are:
- Non-Hispanic Whites
- 18 to 25-year olds
- People abusing cocaine
- People abusing prescription opioids
- People using prescription opioids for severe injuries
- People with a history of drug and alcohol use
Individuals in the above categories may develop a tolerance to synthetic opioids from prescription opioids. Once their tolerance for prescription opioids increases, they may crave stronger substances. Many begin their journey into heroin abuse from prescription opioids for injuries. Once patients lack access to prescription pain medication, some search streets for alternatives like cheap bags of heroin, or worse, fentanyl. Black Americans are less likely to be victims of opioid abuse, for reasons including that doctors don’t prescribe them medication due to racial biases.
Women And Opioid Abuse
Women who battle opioid abuse endure unique gender-related risks that can impact many lives. Firstly, women are more likely to be prescribed opioids as they are more likely to experience chronic pain. Long-term effects of opioid abuse can range from dangerous to extremely tragic.
Women who abuse opioids are more at risk for exploitation and violence if living on the streets. Women abusing heroin may become so desperate for the substance, they run away from homes and families. Their lives can take a turn for the worse. They may make decisions they may never have made, exposing themselves to dangerous people and become homeless. Other women may resort to crimes to support their substance abuse disorders.
Expectant mothers who use prescription opioids subject themselves to addiction, along with their unborn babies. When mothers give birth to babies while using opioids, babies are born with symptoms such as:
- Excessive crying
- Slow weight gain
Babies who are born addicted, shake violently, often need hospitalization and medications like morphine for relief.
The public health crisis affects many Americans; however, there are many alternatives for chronic pain. People with chronic pain can consider safe and non-habit-forming methods to recover. People can explore options by speaking with their doctor or entering rehab for complete treatment of substance use disorders. Individuals suffering withdrawal or afraid to stop abusing opioids can additionally seek treatment.