What Is The Opioid Epidemic?
You’ve no doubt heard the term “Opioid epidemic” get thrown around in the news. The Opioid epidemic, also known as the Opioid crisis, has become a hot button issue in the media. However, many may not know what the crisis actually is.
The Opioid epidemic specifically refers to the growing number of deaths and hospitalizations from Opioids, including both prescription and illicit drugs. In recent years, death rates from these drugs have skyrocketed to over 40,000 a year, or 115 a day, across the US. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, largely due to the Opioid epidemic. The Opioid epidemic first gained notoriety around 2010, but the factors behind it had begun several years earlier.
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What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a classification of drugs derived from, or synthesized to mimic, Opium. Morphine, the most abundant natural Opioid found in Opium, was used for years to relieve pain. As medicine advanced, scientists found ways to replicate the effects of Morphine to make it stronger or weaker depending on the need. Some Opioids, like Methadone, were developed due to a scarcity of Morphine, while others, like Heroin, were made in an attempt to make less addictive drugs. Today, Opioids are almost synonymous with pain relief.
Examples of common Opioids include:
How The Opioid Epidemic Started
Many trace the issue back to the late 1990s. As pharmaceutical companies were looking for new Painkillers, they began to push Synthetic and semi-Synthetic Opioids to doctors. The companies would say that the drugs were either less addictive or nonaddictive in comparison to Morphine, and that they had no dangerous side effects. Doctors began pushing these drugs, as they saw no repercussions to patients taking them. This growth in the prescription Opioid business directly pushed the distribution of Opioids to elevated levels that remain to this day, contributing to the epidemic we are now dealing with.
As of 2019, 9,700,000 Americans had taken prescription Painkillers improperly.
80% of people suffering from an addiction to Heroin started with a prescription for an Opioid Painkiller.
The costs of prescription Opioid misuse in the US comes out to $78.5 billion a year.
The Prescription Opioid Epidemic
Many of those who become addicted to Opioids do so after initially receiving a prescription. The highly addictive nature of these Painkillers makes it easy for the human brain to crave more of them. It is only after their prescription ends that many users realize they’ve become dependent on the effects of Opioids to function normally. At that point, they are forced to either get clean and endure the pain that comes with the withdrawal symptoms of Opioids or look for another means of getting their high. This is often the time where people will turn to illicit drugs. Because prescription Opioids are so expensive, users may resort to Heroin instead. It is often cheaper, more potent, and easier to locate than what users were taking before. In fact, about 80% of people using Heroin started with a prescription to another Opioid. After using Heroin, 23% of individuals develop Opioid addiction.
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How The Opioid Epidemic Is Different From Other Drug Problems
The number of people dying of accidental Opioid overdose eclipses overdose fatalities of every other drug combined, which is why the term “Opioid epidemic” was coined. Perhaps the most striking part of this is how many deaths come from prescription drugs; the willingness of doctors and pharmaceutical companies to promote and prescribe medication they know to be addictive and, often, deadly has been salient. It’s not necessarily those who are using Heroin or some other illegal drug who are paying the price. It’s the people who are taking the medication they received from a medical professional.
In 1992, before the major push for Opioids from pharmaceutical companies, doctors wrote 112 million Opioid prescriptions.
By 2020, the number of Opioid prescriptions was at 142 million — a 15-year low.
Who The Opioid Epidemic Affects
In short, the Opioid epidemic affects people in all demographics and from all walks of life, including teens, seniors, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. Even those who do not use or abuse Opioids can feel the effects of the epidemic if Opioid abuse is common in their area or if their loved ones have addiction issues. The economic burden of Opioid abuse and the emotional burden put on families of an addicted individual have been devastating.
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What Can We Do?
The Opioid epidemic isn’t one person’s problem, and it will take everyone to beat it. Knowing the dangers, signs, and symptoms of Opioid abuse can save someone’s life. Talk with your loved ones openly and remove the stigma of addiction. It isn’t something that only happens to the weak. It is a biological reaction that can happen to anyone, with or without their knowledge.
Addiction doesn’t have to be the end; it can be just a detour. If you believe you or a loved one shows the symptoms of addiction and are interested in finding treatment, contact a treatment provider today.
Ashish Bhatt, MD, MRO
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Learn about Dr. Ashish Bhatt
Dr. Bhatt has been Addiction Center's Medical Content Director for more than three years, providing his expertise to ensure quality and accuracy.
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Expert in adult and child psychiatry
Over 20 years of professional experience