What is the Opioid Epidemic in the United States?

For decades now, we’ve experienced an epidemic involving opioid misuse in the United States. In 2017, nearly 68% of all overdose deaths involved opioids, for a grand total of 47, 600 deaths.

The opioid crisis began in three waves.

The epidemic began in the 1990s when an increase in the number of opioids prescribed to patients began leading to deaths. At this time, pharmaceutical companies claimed that the risk of developing an addiction to opioid pain killers was very low and were promoting their use in patients suffering from non-cancer related pain, despite a lack of evidence for benefits and risks.

In 2010, doctors began prescribing opioid painkillers much less liberally in an attempt to make them harder to obtain. Those who had already become dependent on opioids turned to heroin instead. Heroin overdose rates rose by nearly 300% from 2002 to 2013, and a staggering 86% of heroin users had misused prescription opioids before beginning to use heroin.

Wave number three began in 2013 with the rise of deaths related to synthetic opioids. Illegally manufactured opioids like fentanyl have been to blame for the third wave of the opioid crisis.

Most Commonly Abused Opioids

Fentanyl – In recent years, fentanyl has been the country’s deadliest painkiller. It’s extremely potent, up to 100 times more so than morphine, making it easy to accidentally overdose. Fentanyl is typically prescribed as a slow-releasing patch. Street drugs like cocaine and heroin may be cut with illegally manufactured fentanyl without the buyer’s knowledge.

Heroin – Heroin use rose during the second wave of the opioid epidemic when restrictions were placed on prescription painkillers and the drug is most commonly injected. Around one in four first-time users of heroin become addicted to it.

Oxycodone – Popular oxycodone-based drugs include OxyContin, Percocet, and Roxicodone. These medications usually come in pill form and are crushed and snorted or melted down and injected to cause quick highs.

Morphine – Users of morphine often report feeling in a dreamlike state when they are high. Regular users develop tolerance fairly quickly and, similarly to heroin, addiction to it is often extremely difficult to overcome.

Looking to the Future

Rates of opioid misuse have been decreasing slowly, but researchers believe the epidemic is far from over.

Doctors, medical associations, and the government are setting practices to try and reduce the amount of opioid misuse. The US CDC has issued comprehensive guidelines for the prescribing of opioid medications, stating that opioids should be used as a last resort for people dealing with pain that is not related to cancer or other chronic or terminal illness.

Several states have passed laws around issuing prescription opioids, with some having stricter rules than others.

All in all, opioid misuse is widespread and dangerous. If you’re concerned about opioid addiction in yourself or a loved one, help is available.

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