According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 100 people in the United States die from drug overdoses every day, and death rates as a result of drug overdoses have more than tripled since 1990. The CDC also reports that nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by opiates.
Opiates are commonly referred to as painkillers. They are derived from opium or synthetic versions of it and used in pain relief. Common opiates include Vicodin (hydrocodone), Percocet, OxyContin, oxycodone, Fentanyl, and codeine. They work by binding to the receptors in the brain to decrease the perception of pain. Side effects include sedation, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, constipation, physical dependence, tolerance, and respiratory depression.
In addition to decreasing the perception of pain, opiates can create a feeling of euphoria that some people find pleasing.
This pleasant feeling can often lead to addiction and cause physiological dependence.
As a result, the brain perceives needing more and more opiates and one may take larger doses to reduce withdrawal symptoms or simply produce a euphoric effect.
Sedation and slowed respiration are effects of opiate use. In larger doses, respiration can become so slow that it eventually stops, leading to death.
Prescription opiate addiction has surfaced in recent years as one of the most prevalent addictions. According to the CDC, research shows that some groups are particularly vulnerable to prescription overdose. These groups include:
- People who participate in the practice known as “doctor shopping” — receiving prescriptions from several different providers.
- People who take high daily doses of opiates and those who misuse multiple abuse-prone prescriptions
- Low-income people, as people on Medicaid were found to be prescribed opiates at twice the rate of non-Medicaid patients
- People with mental illness
- People with a history of substance abuse.
As a result of the alarming statistics, several states have implemented prescription drug monitoring programs, also known as PDMPs. This is a system used to track the prescribing and dispensing of prescription drugs to patients. This can identify patients who abuse the system as well as doctors who overprescribe.
The reality is that prescription opiates are not difficult to obtain. With the rise in opiate abuse, they are easily accessible on the streets and from people who are prescribed them.
One of the myths about prescription opiate use is that it must be safe because doctors prescribe them. When taken for a specific medical need, under the care of a doctor, with a treatment end date in mind, opiates are very effective.
However, if one is taking prescription opiates with no medical need, this can be very dangerous, as they are highly addictive. The Drug Enforcement Administration has classified many of these drugs as high scheduled controlled substances due to the high potential for abuse and dependence.
If you are concerned about someone abusing opiates, these are a few common signs.
- Extreme fatigue, sleeping more than usual, or episodes of “nodding off” during normal activities
- Pinpoint and fixed pupils unresponsive to changes of light
- Changes in appetite and weight as both will often decrease drastically
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Decrease in personal hygiene
- Increased laxative use due to constipation
- Withdrawal symptoms (such as muscle cramps/pain, chills, perspiration, irregular heartbeat, itching, restless leg syndrome, flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, vomiting, and weakness) with discontinued use
Opiate dependence treatment often requires long-term treatment. This is usually a combination of detoxification, inpatient, and outpatient services. The main objective is to reduce dependence and issues associated with use such as mortality and infectious diseases. There are several treatment options, which can include opioid replacement therapy, where medications are given to reduce or eliminate the use of illicit opiates.
If you are taking prescription opiates, make sure you are talking with your doctor about a long-term plan. If you notice you are developing a tolerance (needing more than prescribed to relieve pain), or that you are suffering from withdrawals during periods of discontinued use, talk with your health care provider.
If you know someone who is abusing opiates or struggling with opiate addiction, reach out to them and offer help. If you know of a health care provider who is overprescribing opiates, contact your local licensing board and file a report. You could save your life or the life of someone else.