Drug overdose deaths continue to increase in the United States, and over 60% of those deaths involve an opioid. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 91 Americans die from overdosing on opioids every day.
Opioids are a class of drugs that work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. They reduce feelings of pain and the sending of pain messages to the brain. Opioids come in many forms including the illegal drug heroin as well as prescription medications such as:
– codeine (only available in generic form)
– fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora)
– hydrocodone (Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER)
– hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin)
– hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
– meperidine (Demerol)
– methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
– morphine (Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, Ora-Morph SR)
– oxycodone (OxyContin, Oxecta, Roxicodone)
– oxycodone and acetaminophen (Percocet, Endocet, Roxicet)
– oxycodone and naloxone (Targiniq ER)
These opioids are often prescribed as pain relievers for a wide range of symptoms, and the increased rate at which they are being prescribed has been named as a contributing factor of the addiction problem. The volume of opioid prescriptions nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, even though the amount of pain reported stayed the same. In 2015, enough opioid pain relievers were prescribed to keep every American medicated for three weeks straight.
Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken as prescribed by a doctor for a short period of time. However, since opioids produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, patients are susceptible to misusing their medication (i.e.: taking a larger quantity than prescribed, continuing to use when their pain is manageable without medication). Regular use, even as prescribed by a doctor, can lead to psychological dependence. People who take a prescribed opioid, even at very low doses, for over three months are 15 times more likely to become addicted. It is estimated that 1 in 4 patients who are prescribed opioid pain relievers struggle with addiction.
The prevalence of opioid pain relievers being prescribed and increase in opioid misuse and fatalities spans people from all walks of life, becoming a public health and safety issue with far-reaching effects. Substance abuse costs the country over $442 billion in health care, crime, and lost productivity every year.
The growing opioid epidemic is also spreading infectious diseases. Hepatitis C has nearly tripled in the last five years, reaching a 15 year high, and HIV is being transmitted through unsafe injection practices.
Misuse of opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose incidents and death. Every day, over 1,000 patients are treated for misusing prescription opioids in emergency rooms across the nation. The life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose can be reversed with the drug naloxone (Narcan, Evzio) if given right away.