Accidental Addiction and the Opioid Epidemic

Opioid drug misuse is a national health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of the 67,367 drug overdose deaths in 2018 involved opioids. Each day, 128 people die from an opioid overdose in the U.S.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs including both legal pain relieving drugs and illegal synthetic opioids and heroin.

Prescription pain relievers — such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphene, morphine, and codeine — are not illegal. However, drug abuse and misuse doesn’t just apply to illegal substances.

Prescription drugs are only safe when they are used as prescribed by a medical professional. Opioids of any kind are addictive, and it’s difficult to overcome opioid addiction.

Synthetic opioids include drugs such as fentanyl and methadone. Fentanyl is significantly more potent than other opioid pain relievers. While fentanyl is sometimes prescribed for severe pain, it is also made and distributed illegally.

According to the CDC, two-thirds of opioid overdose deaths involve synthetic opioids.

Heroin is an illegal opioid. Some prescription opioids have similar effects on the body as heroin. Research indicates that opioid misuse could lead to heroin use.

Opioid misuse and abuse

Opioid misuse refers to using opioid pain relievers in a different way than prescribed, or taking them in a larger quantity than prescribed. Misuse can lead to drug abuse, addiction, and overdose.

The National Institute of Health defines drug abuse as, “The use of illegal drugs or the use of prescription or over-the-counter drugs for purposes other than those for which they are meant to be used, or in large amounts. Drug abuse may lead to social, physical, emotional, and job-related problems.”

The CDC lays out three waves of opioid overdose deaths that contribute to the current opioid epidemic.

  1. Increased prescribing of opioid pain relievers began in the 1990s. Overdose deaths from prescription opioids started increasing in the late 1990s.
  2. The number of heroin overdose deaths climbed in 2010.
  3. In 2013, opioid deaths surged, due largely to synthetic opioids, specifically illegally manufactured fentanyl.

While much has been done to combat the opioid epidemic, there’s even more that has yet to be done.

According to the American Medical Association Opioid Task Force, the number of opioid prescriptions decreased by 37.1 % between 2014 and 2019. In 2019, there were more than 1 million nalaxone prescriptions (a drug used to reverse opioid overdose) compared to 6,588 prescriptions in 2015.

However, there are still prescription opioid overdoses, and illegally manufactured fentanyl and other illicit opioids remain a problem. The use of these illegal drugs has increased significantly, and so has the overdose rate.

Accidental opioid addiction

Prescription pain relievers can be helpful, and they can be used safely. You may benefit from pain relievers after an injury or surgery, for example. However, prescription drugs can be misused like any other drug. People don’t plan on becoming addicted to prescription opioids; no one is immune to addiction.

It’s important to fully understand the risk of opioid addiction, and only use prescription drugs as instructed by a physician.

  • The longer you use opioids, the more likely you are to develop an addiction.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions for using prescription medicine.
  • Return any unused prescription drugs to drug take-back locations.
  • Do not use prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to you.
  • Store prescription opioids in a secure place out of reach of others in your home.
  • Do not use prescription drugs for recreational purposes.
  • Opioids bind to receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and organs throughout the body. They block pain signals and release large amounts of dopamine. The body can get used to these effects, which leads to addiction.
  • Intervene before addiction. If you find yourself using prescription pain relievers more than prescribed, or you notice signs of addiction — urges to use the drug, needing more of the drug to get the same effect, dependence on the drug, failing attempts to quit using the drug, etc. — talk to your doctor.

Talk to your doctor about any questions or concerns you might have regarding opioid pain relievers. Keep your doctor informed about any side effects or concerns you have with using opioids.