What Is the Opioid Epidemic?
You’ve no doubt heard the term opioid epidemic get thrown around in the news. The opioid epidemic, also known as the opioid crisis. has become a hot button issue in the media. However, many may not know what the crisis actually is.
The opioid epidemic specifically refers to the growing number of deaths and hospitalizations from opioids, including prescriptions, illicit drugs, and analogues. In recent years, death rates from these drugs have ramped up to over 40,000 a year, or 115 a day, across the US. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, largely due to the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic first gained notoriety around 2010, but it the factors behind it had begun several years earlier.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a classification of drug that is derived from, or a synthetic version of, opium. Morphine, the most abundant natural opioid found in opium, was used for years as a pain reliever. As medicine advanced, we found ways to replicate the effects of morphine to make it stronger or weaker depending on need. Some opioids, like methadone, were developed due to a scarcity of morphine, while others, like heroin, were made in an attempt to make less addictive drugs but would later be made illegal to produce. Today, opioids are almost synonymous with pain relief.
Examples of common Opioids include:
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How the Opioid Epidemic Started
Many trace the issue back to the late 90s. As pharmaceutical companies were looking for new pain killers, they began to push synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids to doctors. The companies would say that the drugs were either less- or non-addictive in comparison to morphine and had no dangerous side effects. Naturally, doctors began pushing these drugs as they saw no repercussions to patients taking them. This growth in the prescription opioid business directly pushed the distribution of opioids to levels that remain to this day, contributing to the epidemic we are now dealing with.
Deaths across the US have steadily grown over time. There have been 115 a day, on average, since 2014.
80% of people suffering from an addiction to heroin started with a prescription for an opioid pain reliever.
The costs of prescription opioid misuse in the US comes out to $78.5 billion a year.
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The Prescription Opioid Epidemic
Many of those who become addicted to opioids do so after initially receiving a prescription. The highly addictive nature of these pain relievers makes it easy for the human brain to crave more. It is only after their prescription ends that many users realize they’ve become dependent on the effects of opioids to function “normally.” At that point, they are either forced to get clean and endure the pain that comes with the withdrawal symptoms of opioids or look for another means of getting their high. This is often the time where people will turn to illicit drugs or other analogues. Because prescription opioids are so expensive, this is when many users turn to heroin. It is often cheaper, more potent, and easier to locate than what they were taking before. In fact, about 80% of people using heroin started with a prescription to another opioid. After using heroin, however, 23% of individuals develop opioid addiction.
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How the Opioid Epidemic Is Different from Other Drug Problems
The number of people dying of accidental overdose of opioids eclipses every other drug combined, which is why the term opioid epidemic was coined. In 2015, the US saw 52,404 deaths from drug overdose. More than 20,000 of those were from prescription pain relievers, and close to 13,000 were from heroin. That means 63% of drug deaths were tied to opioids. That number of opioid-related deaths grew by nearly 10,000 the following year.
Perhaps the most stifling part of this is how many deaths come from prescriptions. These aren’t people who are using heroin or some other illegal drug. These are people who are using medication they got from a doctor.
In 1992, before the major push for opioids from pharmaceutical companies, doctors wrote 112 opioid prescriptions.
In 2016, the number of opioid prescriptions had increased to 236 million after a peak of 282 million in 2014.
Who the Opioid Epidemic Affects
In short, the opioid epidemic affects people in all demographics and from all walks of life, including teens, seniors, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. Even those who do not use or abuse opioids can feel the effects if opioid abuse is common in their area or if their loved ones have addiction issues. The economic burden, and the emotional burden put on families, has been dragging many down.
What Can We Do?
The opioid epidemic isn’t one person’s problem, and so it will take everyone to beat it. Knowing the dangers, signs, and symptoms of opioid abuse can save someone’s life. Talk with your loved ones openly and remove the stigma of addiction. It isn’t something that only happens to the weak. It is a biological reaction that can happen to anyone, with or without their knowledge.
If you believe you or a loved one show the symptoms of addiction, reach out to a treatment provider immediately. Addiction doesn’t have to be the end, it can just be a detour.