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A Guide to Understanding the Opioid Epidemic
Opioids are a wide class of drugs that contains everything from highly illegal heroin to commonly prescribed hydrocodone. More and more people are becoming concerned about the effect of these drugs have on our society. They may have some medical uses, but they are highly addictive and frequently abused.
Over 11.5 million people have purposefully misused prescription opioids to get high, and many of these people end up with an addiction. Current rates of opioid abuse and overdose continue to soar, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officially consider the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency. Here’s what you need to know about the opioid crisis.
A History of Opioid Use
Opioids have been called one of the oldest drugs in the world. Since the 4th century B.C., the opium poppy was used as a method of relaxation and pain relief. However, it did not become truly dangerous until people began concentrating the latex from the poppy. By the 1900s, morphine had been synthesized from the opium plant, and it almost instantly became a problem. As early as the Civil War, soldiers became addicted to morphine after being given morphine for pain relief.
When heroin was produced by the Bayer Company in 1898, it initially was seen as harmless, and people didn’t even need a prescription for it for years. By 1924, there were so many severe problems developing with heroin addiction that it was finally made illegal. However, it continued to be prescribed for depression and other issues until the 1950s. Over the next few decades, many other drugs were produced that also bind to the opioid receptors in the brain.
Like heroin and morphine, other opioid medications were initially seen as harmless. Oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone, tramadol, and hydromorphone are all man-made opioids that are still being prescribed today. Unfortunately, we are beginning to find that modern prescription opioids are just as dangerous as the opioids prescribed back in the 1800s. Many people end up addicted to them after being told to use them following an illness or injury.
The Modern Opioid Crisis
Modern opioid use is so problematic that the National Institute on Drug Abuse officially rate it as a public health crisis. Their statistics estimate that roughly 2 million people in the United States have some sort of opioid misuse disorder. The economic costs of this epidemic have reached over $504 billion due to a loss in productivity and an increase in health care and judicial costs.
One of the reasons that modern opioid usage counts as a crisis is that more and more users are beginning to die from opioids. A person abusing opioids can easily end up overdosing and dying. The rates continue to climb at a staggering pace. In 2015, 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses. By 2016, the number soared to 42,249 deaths. Each day, over 115 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose.
Due to the rapid increase of opioid abuse, the Surgeon General of the United States has issued the first official advisory in over a decade. This rarely used tool was last used to warn people against drinking during pregnancy. The 2018 Surgeon General Advisory warns people about the signs of opioid overdoses, including shallow breathing, loss of consciousness and confusion, and the advisory states that naloxone is the most effective way for reversing an overdose.
A particularly concerning factor in the modern opioid crisis is the increase in synthetic opioids. Heroin and other street drugs are often mixed with synthetic opioids that are far stronger. The most dangerous one is fentanyl which can cause an overdose even in minute quantities. According to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, 46 percent of opioid deaths are due to synthetic opioids. Over the past two years, opioid overdoses in the Midwestern region have increased by 70 percent, and many point to fentanyl as the culprit behind all of these deaths.
Understanding the Opioid Epidemic
The modern opioid crisis seems to be closely linked to the over-prescription of opioids. Experts often point to the pharmaceutical companies from the late 1990s as the underlying cause of the opioid epidemic. Many medical companies started marketing opioid medications as an effective form of pain reliever. Both pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers mistakenly believed that people could not easily become addicted to the newer synthetic opioids.
Unfortunately, it turned out that these medications were just as addictive as other types of opioids. Patients become addicted to the medications, and once they no longer need them for medical reasons, they may begin to resort to illegal opioids or fraudulent prescriptions to get the opioids. Between 8 to 12 percent of all people prescribed an opioid medication end up developing an opioid use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 80 percent of all heroin users started their addiction by taking prescription opioids for pain relief or other reasons.
Though most experts agree that there is an opioid epidemic going on, few people can seem to reach a consensus on the best way of dealing with it. For a long time, the primary reaction to opioid addiction was to declare a “war on drugs.” This primarily led to soaring arrest rates for addicts, and only about 10 percent of all illegal heroin being trafficked was intercepted.
Now that we better understand the reasons for the opioid crisis, the U.S. Department of Health is focusing on raising public awareness of the dangers involved with opioids. The National Institute of Health has begun urging physicians and pharmaceutical companies to find new ways of managing pain. If doctors reduce the rate of opioid prescriptions, less people will be exposed to these dangerous and addictive drugs. To fully stop the opioid crisis, the government is putting more funds towards treatment and recovery services for those with an addiction.
How to Help Someone with an Opioid Addiction
Various medical and political institutions are trying to take steps to fix the opioid crisis, but their help probably seems vague and distant when you or a loved one are dealing with an opioid addiction. If the opioid crisis is more personal for you, you might be wondering what you can do to help a loved one fight an addiction to opiates.
Learn About the Disease
Before you start talking to your loved one about opioid addictions, it is important to educate yourself about opioid addictions and learn to recognize the signs. A person may be using opioids if they have trouble staying awake, a high heart rate, euphoria, flushed skin, constricted pupils, and needle marks from injections.
Those with an addiction to opioids will have a dependency on the drug. When they are not using opioids, they may be nauseous, irritable, and depressed. An addiction may cause a person to do unsafe or unethical things to access more opioids, and they will begin using higher and higher amounts to get the same sort of effects.
Avoid Accusation and Confrontation
Most people try to jump straight into a traditional intervention where they sit down with the loved one and start listing all the problems caused by the person’s addiction. Unfortunately, this style of confrontation is not always effective. Many addictions specialists recommend bringing it up just like it is any other sort of medical problem.
Focus on your concern for the person and encourage them to seek treatment. Try to emphasize that you love the person and are worried about them instead of just telling them that they should be ashamed of their behavior. Leaving negative emotions out of your talk with the addict is more likely to be effective.
Assist in Finding Treatment
The main goal in bringing up a person’s addiction problem should be to encourage them to seek treatment. Look for a good rehabilitation center that contains a combination of therapy and medication-assisted treatment. Many believe that medication-assisted treatment is the most effective method for dealing with opioid addiction. Medications like methadone and buprenorphine help to reduce cravings and prevent withdrawal symptoms from becoming dangerous.
Treatment should also include therapies designed to address addiction. An individual may have mental health problems or past traumas that prone them to seek out addictive behaviors. Addiction treatments also encourage people with an opioid addiction to consider their thoughts and behaviors carefully, so it can help to break addictive patterns. It can be tough to find a good treatment center that offers everything an addict needs. Call the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s confidential helpline at 800-662-HELP for assistance with finding local treatment facilities.
Keep Them Safe Without Enabling
The sad reality is that up to 40 percent of people in treatment for substance abuse end up relapsing. There is a problem with opioids in America because they are so particularly addictive. Many opioid relapses are deadly because a person loses their tolerance to opioids after staying clean for a while. In 2016 alone, over 42,000 people died due to opioid overdoses. Because opioid relapses are so common and deadly, you may decide to keep Naloxone on hand. This helpful substance will halt an overdose so you can seek help.
After a relapse, your attitude can make a big difference. Many people with an opioid addiction are tempted to give up after they relapse. Though you might feel frustrated or want to give up, try to still be supportive instead of ignoring or shaming them. Encourage your loved one to go back to a rehabilitation center where they can get assistance with their relapsing behavior. Having an opioid addiction is a lifelong struggle, but the right treatment can make a huge difference.