The United States is currently in the middle of a nation-wide epidemic. Hospital emergency rooms and first responders are overwhelmed by the victims, and both small towns and large cities are reporting losses on a massive scale. This modern plague isn’t deterred by age, status in life, or race. But unlike epidemics of years past, these victims haven’t contracted viruses like AIDS or influenza. America is currently drowning under the rising tide of an opioid epidemic.
Opioids are a class of drugs that affect the body’s pain receptors. Opioid receptors are located in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of your body and are responsible for sending pain messages back to your brain when something hurts. Opioids block the receptors from sending these messages to the brain, thus relieving pain. These drugs are used medically for many legitimate reasons other than pain relief, including anesthesia, diarrhea and cough suppression, and treatment of opioid dependency and overdose. Opioids include heroin and familiar prescription medications like codeine, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and others. Some side effects of these drugs include sedation, nausea, constipation, and itchiness, but the most common side effect is a feeling of euphoria.
Since euphoria is a common byproduct of opioid drugs, it makes them prone to being abused. Tolerance and dependence will develop with the continuous use of these drugs, which means a person who uses opioids will require higher and higher doses to achieve the desired effect. This leads to withdrawal syndrome when a person abruptly stops using opioids. The reason you hear so much about opioid overdoses is that they are so often fatal. Opioids depress respiratory function, and if you take too much of them, you can stop breathing.
When it comes to opioid abuse and deaths in the United States, the numbers are staggering. In 2014, more than 28,000 people died from an opioid overdose. More than half of these deaths involved a prescription opioid. Heroin deaths alone have more than tripled since 2010, and 45 percent of heroin abusers also reported being addicted to prescription opioids. As of 2013, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were the biggest abusers of prescription opioids, and heroin use among this same age group has also doubled over the last decade. Some of the greatest increases in heroin use over that same time period has been in demographic groups with historically low rates of abuse: women, people with higher incomes, and those with private insurance. More and more often, it seems like nearly everyone you’ll talk to has a story of how the opioid epidemic has touched their lives or the lives of those they love.
The statistics are just as chilling in our own state of Missouri. In 2014, there were 338 heroin-involved deaths in Missouri. Just thirteen years before, there were only 18. Thousands of people were hospitalized from non-heroin opioid overdoses in 2015, and out of those, 500 people died. Between 2005 and 2014, emergency room visits related to opioid abuse more than doubled, and hospital treatment for doctor-prescribed opioid painkillers rose by an incredible 137 percent. As many as 3 out of 4 prescription opioid abusers in Missouri eventually go on to use heroin, which is easier to get and less expensive than prescription painkillers. Even more upsetting is the fact that Missouri’s opioid overdose rate is higher than the national average- we’re at 17 overdoses per 100,000 population, while the national average is 12.4 per 100,000 population. The problem is growing in Missouri, and it’s up to us to do something about it.
When faced with a problem as massive as the opioid epidemic, it seems like regular people like us can’t make a difference. This isn’t true. You can be aware of the people around you, and if it seems like one of your friends, family, or co-workers is having a hard time, you can be there to help. Some physical signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include constriction of the pupils, noticeable sedation, or drowsiness, and slowed breathing. Other signs that something isn’t right include accident proneness, mood swings, anxiety and irritability, lowered motivation, and sudden social isolation. Some obvious signs that someone close to you may be abusing opiates include them having multiple prescriptions from different doctors, finding extra pill bottles in the trash, or you see that they’re taking more medication than prescribed- they run out of medicine before they can get their prescription refilled, or they seem to experience withdrawal symptoms if doses are skipped.
If you think that someone close to you may be struggling with drug abuse or addiction, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it. It may seem awkward or uncomfortable, but you never know when your words will make an impact. It can literally mean the difference between life and death for someone who is struggling with addiction… and keep them from becoming another statistic.