Opiate abuse isn’t new, but in the past two years, there has been more talk on the epidemic of opiate addiction in the news and in headlines. In fact, we get more calls now about opiate abuse than we have at any time in the past.
Opiates are commonly prescribed for pain. The fact that they’re a form of prescription medication can make it difficult for people to spot the signs of addiction. When a drug is sanctioned by your doctor, you might not treat it with the same caution that you would an illegal drug.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this list of 8 alarming facts about opiate abuse. These can help you understand why opiates are addictive and why it’s important to be careful when taking them.
#1: Non-Medical Use of Opioids is Increasing
The first thing you need to know about opiates is that opiate abuse is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), emergency room visits for opioid overdoses have been growing steadily. In 2014, there were:
- 81,631 emergency doctor visits for non-heroin opioid overdoses; and
- 66,023 emergency doctor visits for heroin overdoses
That’s a total of 147,654 overdoses in a single year. Of course, those numbers don’t include people who abused opiates but didn’t visit an emergency room or doctor due to an overdose.
#2: Opiate Abuse Can Be Fatal
Another alarming fact about opiate abuse is that it can be fatal. CDC research found that the number of deaths due to opioid overdoses quintupled between 1999 and 2016. That number correlates with a similar increase in the number of opioid prescriptions, which was four times as high in 2010 as it was in 1999.
In total, 600,000 people have died because of opiate abuse between 2000 and 2016. That works out to an average of 115 deaths per day. A related fact is that the amount of pain reported by Americans has not increased. It’s just that doctors are prescribing more opiates than they used to.
#3: People Don’t Always Get Opioids from Doctors
Doctors are prescribing opioids frequently, but that doesn’t mean that every person who abuses these drugs gets them with a prescription. In fact, one of the most disturbing trends in opioid use involves people getting drugs from friends or family members.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA), approximately 50.5% of all people who abuse opioid drugs get them from someone they know. Only a little over 22% get them from a doctor, and the remainder obtain them from other sources.
This may be due in part to a perception that prescription drugs are safer than so-called “street” drugs, when in fact they can be equally as dangerous if misused.
#4: Use of Prescription Opiates May Be a Gateway to Heroin Abuse
While prescription opiates, like oxycodone and fentanyl, have been in the news lately, it might be easy to forget that one of the most dangerous street drugs is also an opiate. We’re talking about heroin.
Heroin is highly addictive and – for some people – may be easier to obtain than prescription medications. In fact, nearly 80% of people who use heroin say that they misused prescription opiates first.
We want to note here that it’s not common for people who abuse prescription opiates to turn to heroin. Only about 4% do, but it’s still a fact worth noting. People who are addicted may turn to more dangerous options if their opiate of choice isn’t available.
#5: The Opiate Fentanyl is More Addictive than Heroin
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s often prescribed for breakthrough pain, especially in people who have been taking other opioids for a long time. It can be a useful drug for controlling pain, but it’s also highly addictive and dangerous.
In fact, fentanyl is approximately 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. A lethal dose of fentanyl is only 3 milligrams. That makes it very easy to overdose – especially because fentanyl is a short-acting drug. Its effects wear off quickly and may prompt users to take another dose before it is actually safe to do so.
Fentanyl affects the brain in the same way as other opioid drugs, but its strength is what makes it dangerous for many people.
#6: Opiates Change Your Brain
One of the most alarming things about opiate abuse is what it does to your brain. As you know, opiates are most commonly prescribed as painkillers.
Opiates are designed to react with one or more of your brain’s four opiate receptors. They can:
- Reduce your perception of pain without eliminating its cause
- Create a sense of euphoria or elation
- Slow respiration and digestion
- Cause sleepiness
It’s the second reaction that makes opiates addictive. In some people, the feelings of euphoria produced by opiates trigger an addictive reaction in the brain. It’s linked to the release of the hormone dopamine, which creates a feeling of well-being. The person who takes opiates may want to take more of the drug in question to replicate that feeling of euphoria.
Over time, they will require more of the drug to get the same feeling. This creates a cycle where the addict needs to constantly increase their dosage.
#7: Doctor Shopping is a Real Problem
You may have heard that some addicts go “doctor shopping” to get supplies of the opiate drugs they are addicted to. While this problem is not a widespread one, it does point to one reason that opioid addiction is on the rise.
A recent study found that only one in approximately 143 opioid users obtained prescriptions from more than one doctor in a short period. That works out to 0.7% of all opioid users, but those users bought more than 2% of all prescriptions – and 4% of all opiate drugs by weight.
The problem is that a lack of centralized prescription information makes it difficult for doctors to identify those who might be seeing more than one physician to get drugs. Adding to the issue is the ability of patients to pay in cash when they visit a pharmacy. 49 states have created monitoring programs to make it more difficult for doctor shoppers to obtain multiple opiate prescriptions.
#8: Heroin Overdoses Are Increasingly Common
Prescription opioids might be a gateway to heroin, as we mentioned earlier. The increased use of these drugs might explain, at least in part, why heroin overdoses have dramatically increased.
In fact, heroin overdoses have jumped from approximately 2,039 in 2002 to 13,219 in 2016. That’s a 533% increase.
In 2017, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price noted that the United States loses more people to drug overdoses each year than it lost in the Vietnam War.
The News Isn’t All Bad
While these facts are alarming, we want to note that the news isn’t all bad. The recent discussion of the severity of the opioid epidemic has led to scrutiny – and action.
In 2017, Price announced the first distribution of federal funds to combat the opioid crisis. A total of $485 million was distributed to all 50 states and US territories. The money is meant to be used on prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Funds were allocated based on the number of overdoses and the need for treatment facilities and resources.
We Can Help with Opiate Abuse
Opiate abuse is a significant problem. If you or someone you love has a problem with opiates, whether they are prescription drugs or illegal ones, we’re here to help. Click here to learn about our drug rehabilitation programs now.