These days, if you watch the news or pick up a paper, you’ll likely see some alarming news about the opioid epidemic in America. About 21.5 million Americans have a substance use disorder. That number is more than the total combined populations of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.
Why is it called an epidemic? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says since 1999 the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) has quadrupled. In America, more than 91 people die of an opioid overdose every single day.
What are opioids? Opioids are a class of drugs that includes prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. Illegal drugs such heroin are also opioids. Opioids interact with nerve cells in the brain and central nervous system to relieve pain and produce pleasurable effects.
Many people have an inaccurate picture of the victims of drug addiction. One study estimated that 90 percent of heroin users were white men and women. The CDC estimates that 21,000 adolescents used heroin in the past year. About three-quarters of heroin users started their opioid use with a prescription drug like OxyContin.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that’s characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use – despite harmful consequences.
Addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs like opioids change the brain’s structure and how it works. The changes can be long term.
Diseases such as heart disease disrupt the healthy functioning of the underlying organ. Addiction disrupts the healthy functioning of the brain — the underlying organ involved in drug addiction.
Addiction often begins with a person who has a prescription for an opioid pain reliever. Opioids can be prescribed to relieve chronic pain, such as after an injury.
Over time, opioids generally become less effective. The person with a painful injury may start to take a dosage larger than directed to attain the same level of pain relief.
As the escalation in dosage continues, the individual may have trouble getting more of the prescription medicine to satisfy their larger self-dosage. Since heroin can be less expensive and easier to get than prescription opioids, the person may turn to heroin as a pain reliever.
As tolerance and dosages increase, the person can easily overdose on a prescription medication or a drug such as heroin. Without immediate medical care, an overdose can quickly be fatal. Studies show nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.
Since addiction reaches into families of all incomes and backgrounds, it’s wise to know what to watch for among the people you care about. When there’s an addiction problem, you may notice one or more behavior changes:
In Case of an Overdose, Call 911 Immediately
One common but tragic end of addiction can be an overdose. Watch for these signs of an opioid overdose:
Do not delay if you notice these signs. Call for professional help right away.
People who are struggling with substance abuse can return to a healthy, productive life. Programs to treat substance abuse are readily available. For example, acupuncture shows great promise as an effective pain management tool that can help stop the addiction cycle. Treatment specifically for opiate recovery is also available, including the use of medication assisted treatment.
If you have questions about drug addiction, ask your health care provider. If you need a doctor, you can find a qualified professional online anytime. For concerns about opioid addiction, search under the specialty “Chemical Dependency Services.”
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