Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

Within the past several months, many people have heard and read stories about the opioid epidemic that has, sadly, become commonplace in the news. According to The New York Times article “The Opioid Epidemic: A Crisis Years in the Making,” the United States is currently facing “the deadliest drug crisis in American history.” It is so horrible that on Thursday, October 26th, 2017, the federal government declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency.

The Statistics

It is estimated that the number of drug deaths in 2017 was more than 66,000, which is 2,000 more than the number of deaths in 2016 and almost 12,000 more than the deaths in 2015. Out of the 2017 deaths, 66% involved opioids. Looking at these statistics means opioids killed more people than breast cancer last year. Currently, over 145 Americans die every day. Robert Anderson, the CDC’s Chief of Mortality Statistics, compares the opioid overdoses to the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Breaking down the data even further, there was a 19% increase in drug deaths among teens ages 15 to 19 from 2016 to 2017. Again, many of these deaths included opioids. However, the National Center for Health Statistics have found many of the overdoses were unintentional and involved prescribed painkillers, such as oxycodone. Because of this, more awareness has been given to prescription narcotics. Yet, the largest increase was in the ages 30 to 44. There was a 21% jump in only one year. Another fact is that more males become addicted to opioids than females.

The opioid epidemic can be attributed to several factors. Listed in the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, some of the contributors are:

  • Pain Patient Advocacy: There has been a push for managing pain through the use of opioids. Patients in pain and some physicians have advocated for the usage.
  • The Opioid Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Supply Chain Industry: The pharmaceutical industry plays greatly into how a nation responds to certain drugs, thanks to clever marketing and promotion.
  • Rogue Pharmacies and Unethical Physician Prescribing: Always know where your prescriptions are coming from, in terms of credited and legitimate physicians and pharmacies.
  • Lack of Patient Education: Many patients and their families aren’t completely informed on their medicines and whether or not opioids are included. Always read the prescription’s insert before taking. The three most common prescriptions with opioids are Vicodin, OxyContin, and morphine.

The Symptoms

It is important to be aware of the symptoms of opioid overdose. Some symptoms include:

  • Confusion or delirium
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Extreme fatigue or the inability to wake up
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Respiratory arrest (the person is not breathing)
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish skin around the lips or under the fingernails.

The American Addiction Center’s website states “depressed breathing is the most dangerous side effect of opioid overdose.” This means a lack of oxygen to the brain can cause permanent damage and organ failure.

How You Can Help

There are several ways anyone can help with the opioid crisis.

  • If you suspect someone taking a prescription painkiller has gone into overdose, call 911 immediately. While waiting for help to arrive, roll the person onto their side, to prevent choking if they vomit while unconscious. If they are conscious, keep them awake and talking. Never leave the person alone or asleep.
  • If you or someone you know struggles with opioid addiction, consider getting assistance through an addiction rehabilitation program. These programs will provide medical insight, care, and education on withdrawal, its symptoms, and how to not give in to cravings. In addition, these programs will help create a plan to manage daily life after leaving the center. For more information, visit: org.
  • If you aren’t directly affected by opioid addiction, you can still help raise awareness and public education on the epidemic. Provide people with information on where they can get help, appropriate places to get prescriptions, how to manage pain, and how to become aware on whether or not a person is addicted to a drug. Also, consider ways to give support to those addicted and their families.

The opioid epidemic is increasingly becoming worse with every passing day in our country. More people are becoming addicted and, unfortunately, overdosing. However, together, we can work towards reversing the statistics and giving assistance to those suffering. We can all hope that by the end of 2018, the opioid crisis will be on its way to being eradicated.


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