The Opioid Epidemic

Opioid overdose is the leading cause of death in the United States and has been recently classified as a nationwide epidemic. In 2014, the U.S. had 18,893 deaths from prescribed pain relievers and 10,574 deaths related to heroin (ASAM). Opioid addiction can be well-hidden to outsiders and, in unfortunate cases, it isn’t until an overdose occurs that we learn of the addict’s drug use.

 Opioids include legal prescription drugs such as oxycodone, morphine, dilaudid, Vicodin and fentanyl and the illegal drug, heroin. This drug has a shocking relapse rate of almost 90 percent for opioid addicts and its is relatively easy to access by a simple doctor’s visit ( Prescriptions for opioid drugs are commonly given for chronic pain, surgery or a sports injury. The drug’s powerful effects and its terrible withdrawal symptoms can even lead someone with no history of addiction to become fully dependent on it. Prolonged or unmanaged use leads to an increased tolerance, where users require a higher dose of the drug to feel its initial effect. For many opioid addicts in recovery, a relapse can turn into a fatal overdose when the body has lost its previous tolerance for the same dose they previously took while using. Addicts are often unaware that their tolerance has drastically lowered after detoxing. As a result, taking their usual dose can be too much for the body to handle. The drug’s painful withdrawal alone can be enough to create a binding relationship between an addict and opioid drugs. Opioid withdrawal includes excessive sweating, vomiting and flu-like symptoms along with increased cravings, muscle cramps, restless legs, rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. Addicts become trapped and feel they must continue using this drug to avoid withdrawal.

It is common for heroin to become a part of the cycle in prescription opioid abuse. The Center for Disease Control found that three in every four heroin users report that they initially abused prescription opioids before using heroin ( In some cases, the path to heroin can begin with a pain pill prescription. The user can run out of their medication and feel that they need more, because they have built a tolerance or may still be in pain or do not want withdrawal to interfere with their lives. When more painkillers cannot be prescribed more painkillers, the person who has become addicted may seek out this drug from dealers or begin to steal pills where they can find them. Users may have started with a Vicodin prescription and later find themselves buying Oxycontin, a more concentrated opioid drug, elsewhere. When they are unable to find or afford more pills, heroin becomes an unfortunate option for users. Heroin is cheaper and can be found from drug dealers as a last resort to avoid withdrawal sickness. Heroin use often begins by smoking the drug, where users see this as a less severe method of ingesting it than injecting it. In times of desperation, a user may seek out heroin and find that it is only available to them at that time in a needle. If the only other option is to experience withdrawal, injecting heroin becomes a viable choice. Once this line has been crossed, it is extremely difficult to return to pill use because of the fast-acting and powerful effects of injection.

Our federal government is taking action to reduce the rise of opioid abuse, passing bills to make opioid treatment more accessible and to regulate prescriptions of opioid drugs. In the meantime, Naxolone, also known as Narcan, is increasing in use to prevent fatal overdoses. When a person suffers from an opioid overdose, the drugs suppress the respiratory system and cause the victim to stop breathing. Administering Narcan can revive a person close to death by reversing this effect and restoring breathing ( For many opioid addicts, medication-assisted treatment can be helpful. Medical detox may involve a monitored dose of Subutex to ease withdrawal and cravings. For longer term care, professionals may recommend medication such as Suboxone, Methadone or Vivitrol to prevent an overdose in the event of a relapse. This type of medication activates the same receptors in the brain that interact with opioids, easing withdrawal symptoms without the euphoric feeling of the opioid drug. If the addict relapses and takes their formerly “regular” dose of opioids, their chances of overdosing due to a decreased tolerance is minimized. Loved ones, medical professionals and the addict can work together for a plan of eventually tapering off of this medication. While this type of treatment may not be necessary for every opioid addict in recovery, it is important that the addict has additional support and resources to prevent relapse so that they do not risk the worst-case scenario of an overdose.

It is possible to come out on the other side of this scenario when a recovery plan is put into effect, one step at a time. Friends, family members and spouses of opioid addicts can also help by safeguarding medications like pain pills and supporting the addict through open and loving communication. Professionals at recovery facilities will work with addicts and their loved ones by providing advice, support and medical assistance in a long-term treatment plan. While this class of drugs is dangerous and opioid addiction can lead to serious consequences, taking action and remaining vigilant in the recovery process makes it possible for the addict to live a life of long-term sobriety. Completing a rehabilitation program and adjusting to new sobriety in a sober living facility will help to ensure that the addict is equipped for the healthy and happy life they are meant to have.