Recently, President Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency. He called opioids “the worst drug crisis in American history.” Killing over 30,000 people per year, opioid overdoses (which include heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids) are considered a national epidemic.
Where Are People Getting Opioids From?
Opioids include illegal “street” drugs like heroin as well as prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and morphine. Often, people with an addiction to opioids started off with an injury or serious illness that necessitated the use of strong painkillers. Over time, they built up a tolerance to the medication and began using more and more of it with diminishing results.
Since doctors generally will not prescribe opioids on an unlimited basis, this leaves those who are addicted with a few options for acquiring the drugs.
- One is to go doctor shopping, which means they visit different doctors looking for prescriptions.
- Another is to find someone selling the pills illegally.
- A third option is to turn to heroin, which gives a similar high.
There are people who are addicted who have never been on prescription painkillers. They might try pills in an effort to self-medicate or out of curiosity.
Why Are People Becoming Addicted to Opioids?
Opioids are fairly easy to get on the street and from doctors, so this makes them a drug that’s easy to get addicted to. To understand why people are becoming addicted to opioids at extremely high rates, it’s important to understand how addiction works in the first place. Here’s a brief break down on how a person becomes addicted to drugs.
- First, a person begins taking the drug. It can be for a variety of reasons, including because the medication has been deemed necessary by a physician.
- As time goes on, if they continue taking it, the brain begins to become accustomed to the endorphins that the substance causes to be released. More and more of the medication is needed to have the same effect.
- Eventually, the drug ceases to have any effect, but the brain still remembers that it used to cause an endorphin release. Physical cravings begin and the addiction has taken hold.
How Do People Overdose on Opioids?
Because people build up a tolerance to the drug, they begin to take more and more. Opioids work to relieve pain by affecting the same part of the brain that regulates breathing. When too much is taken, the person can suffer from respiratory depression, or less breathing than they need to get oxygen into their organs. The other symptoms of opioid overdose are pinpoint pupils and a loss of consciousness.
Many people who use opioids might also use sedatives or alcohol. These substances raise the person’s chances of overdosing on the opioids. Keep in mind that only a percentage of overdoses are fatal; many more people experience nonfatal overdoses.
The people who are most at risk of overdosing include:
- those who are dependent on opioids
- those taking large doses of opioids to relieve pain or because they have built up a tolerance, men, those taking several different prescriptions
- those who use sedatives or alcohol along with opiates
What Treatment Is Available?
If someone is in the midst of an overdose, a nasal spray called naloxone (brand name Narcan) can rapidly reverse the effect that the opioid is having. This lifesaving medication is generally carried by healthcare providers and first responders, but sometimes those who are addicted and those who are likely to witness an overdose have it available. This is a lifesaving medication but should not substitute for getting the person sustainable help.
Once the emergency situation has passed, opioid dependence treatment should be started. The person who is addicted can go to an inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Medications such as methadone can be started; this is a drug that can wean people off of opioid dependency. There are other medical treatments as well. In addition “talk therapy” should be started.
Although there are effective treatments for opioid dependency, only a small percentage of people go through the treatment. Focusing on getting more people through the treatment process is an important part of addressing the opioid crisis.
What Can You Do to Help Fight the Opioid Crisis?
There are many steps that you can take to help fight the opioid crisis. Here are five ways that you can start helping today.
1. Take Care of Your Loved Ones
If you believe that a loved one is addicted to opioids, try to get them to see a doctor or a mental health counselor. Anyone exhibiting the symptoms of an overdose should be taken to an emergency room immediately. Calling 911 will bring a first responder to you and they will likely have Narcan to reverse the effects of the opioid overdose.
2. Educate Yourself on the Signs of Addiction and Overdose
Make sure you know the signs of overdose. They include:
- Slow or no breathing
- Slow or no pulse
- Pinpoint (constricted) pupils
Also, be aware of the symptoms that someone is addicted to opioids:
- Making bad decisions
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Neglecting hygiene
- Mood swings
- Sleep disturbances
3. Get a Hold of Narcan if your Community Allows
Some communities distribute Narcan to people who are likely to witness an overdose. Ask in your community if this is the case and, if not, if it’s a possibility.
4. Encourage Others to Seek Help
Also, think about ways you can foster a sense of community. Having connections and being involved with others can help prevent addiction. It can also encourage people to seek help if they find that they’re becoming dependent on any type of medication or drug.
5. Educate Others
Educating yourself about the opioid crisis is one way you can make a difference. Helping to educate others is another way; when more people understand how addiction works and why some people become addicted while others don’t, the stigma surrounding drug use recedes, which is good for everyone.
Finding a Solution
President Trump’s declaration that the opioid crisis is a public health emergency is good for awareness but only the beginning of the journey toward solving the problem. Some solutions that have been proposed include:
- Preventing opioids from entering the country
- Cracking down on doctors who prescribe the drugs irresponsibly
- Increasing the punishments for those found selling the drugs
Community outreach, education, and increasing mental health care programs geared toward helping those with addictions are more good ideas that can help against this opioid crisis.