Using and abusing illicit opioids comes with a laundry list of associated risks. Overdosing is the largest worry, but research has found illicit opioid users are susceptible to other diseases and conditions as well.
Illicit Opioid Use In The US
Over the past 20 years, opioids have ravaged different parts of the US. Early on, tremendous over prescription of opioid pain management medication introduced swaths of the population to an addictive means of treatment. The more people developed dependences on prescription opioids, the more people transitioned to illicit opioid use.
Illicit options are cheaper, which incentivizes people to make the change, especially if they could no longer get prescriptions from their doctor. The addiction that these drugs create drives people to extreme ends to find more. Unfortunately, these habits often end in death, but researchers are finding that overdose isn’t the only threat to these people.
As the name suggests, these diseases don’t spread between people. In this population of drug users, these disorders often occur as a direct result of their drug use or another one of their habits. The overlap between people who abuse opioids and people who smoke is large, which explains why various types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases are more common in this group.
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Illicit opioids and infectious diseases have gone hand in hand predating the opioid epidemic. Many illicit opioids are injected intravenously, which is an extremely common vector for infectious diseases. HIV and Hepatitis C both exploded in recent years as intravenous drug use (IDU) became popularized throughout this population.
Poor needle hygiene often leads to these serious infectious diseases. Oftentimes small groups that share needles don’t have the means to get treatment for their afflictions, which ends catastrophically. These diseases spread rapidly through the homeless drug using community.
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Addiction is a mental health issue that directly involves and impacts physical health. The chemical dependency created opioids introduces an instability to the person’s mental health. The social and financial ramifications associated with addiction layered on top of the unstable mental health can create a dangerous mental state.
Suicide proves to be unfortunately common in the general population of the US. In 2017 alone, there were 47,173 recorded suicides, which works out to 14 people out of every 100,000. When you narrow your focus down to opioid users, the proportion is even larger. And these are intentional suicide deaths, not counting accidental suicide by overdose. A survey of drug users recovering from overdose found that 39% of them didn’t care whether or not they died while taking the drugs. Other studies found that someone is 40-60% more likely to commit suicide if they’re abusing prescription opioids.
In the US population as a whole, unintentional injuries are the 3rd leading cause of death. The addition of drug dependence to any scenario heightens the associated risks. Heavy machinery and cars both warn against use while under the influence because of the extreme danger. Opioids are particularly dangerous because of their sedative effects. While high on opioids, reaction time is increased and coordination is hampered, and these both increase the chance that someone may end up injuring themselves.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to these effects. As a population already prone to sudden falls and unintentional injuries, the addition of opioids increases the chance of a fall. Oftentimes it’s not the direct injuries of the fall that cause the death, but complications from treating the injuries or resulting infections.
While overdose is still the leading cause of death in the opioid abusing community, it’s not the only cause. These other causes are problems that society at large is struggling with outside of the opioid epidemic. In 2017 alone 70,000 people died from opioid overdose. That’s more dead Americans than any foreign war since World War II without including these other health risks. It’s clear that illicit opioids are extremely dangerous and deserve a concerted effort to combat the escalating levels of use.
Michael Muldoon earned a B.A. in Media Studies from Penn State University, but instead of shifting into an academic career in social science, he has decided to put his skills to work in the pursuit of helping those struggling with addiction. He enjoys spending his free time at the climbing gym with friends.
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