Drug overdoses are now responsible for more deaths than car accidents, and this trend shows no signs of stopping. Opioids and heroin are now the leading causes of drug overdoses, with the majority of overdoses in the United States (6 out of 10) involving an opioid. With as much information as we have about the risk of use, the dangers of side effects, and the likelihood of overdose, many are baffled by the increasing statistics; but changes in the way medications are prescribed seems to be the likely culprit.
What is Going on? | The Prescription Statistics
One of the biggest factors behind the surge in opioid abuse is the increase in prescription drug availability. Prescriptions written by doctors have nearly tripled since 1991, with 219 million being written by 2011. Countless people seek the help of medication to manage pain and other conditions. While these drugs can be incredibly beneficial when taken as prescribed by those for whom they are intended, they carry a great potential for misuse. In many cases, those who develop an addiction to prescription medications begin with no ill-intent at all. A person has a condition that requires medication to treat, and begins using painkillers to manage their pain. Over time, tolerances may develop, dependencies can fester, and people may begin to use medication to enjoy the side effects rather than to treat the condition itself.
Who is at Risk?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a demographic that is most at-risk for developing addiction. With increasing availability, painkillers and other prescription medications can be found in many households, making them easier to acquire than ever before. As our population lives longer than ever, pain management has become a part of life. Those who have had surgery, experience migraines, or are simply dealing with the aches and pains associated with old age often manage their pain with prescription opioids. There is no way to know exactly who will become addicted and who will not, but with increased access, the number of people who are exposed to opioid abuse has grown dramatically.
How does Heroin Factor in?
As prescription opioid abuse has increased, so has heroin abuse. Prescription painkillers and heroin are both opioids. The majority of new heroin users are those who previously used opioid medication. Surprisingly, heroin is more accessible and cheaper than prescription opioids. While prescription painkillers can boast high prices that range from 60 to 100 dollars a pill, a single dose of heroin can demand as little as 10 dollars. With statistics highlighting the number of people struggling with opioid addiction, new regulations have made it harder for people to continue feeding their addiction through painkillers. Legislation has cut down on the number of prescriptions doctors can write and has made doctor shopping harder than ever before. This makes heroin an easier substance to come by.
Switching from Pills to Heroin
Abusing heroin is easier than prescription drugs too. Previously, prescription painkillers would be crushed and snorted or dissolved into a solution to inject. Due to increased misuse, many companies have changed the formulation of prescription painkillers to make them more difficult to abuse. Now, painkillers cannot be ground into a fine powder and can even turn into sticky goop when mixed with a solution. Rather than deter people from misusing the drugs, it has caused them to look elsewhere to get their fix.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The opioid epidemic has touched everyone in all regions of the United States. Studies have been unable to find any geographical pattern that explains where the surge is coming from. Rather, communities all across the country—regardless of age, race, or ethnicity—have seen spikes in overdoses due to heroin and painkiller abuse. While steps are being taken to address these dramatic increases, there is still much work to be done. Expanding access to medications used to treat opioid addiction, improved legislation to better monitor the rate of prescription writing, and better methods of detecting and observing trends can help reduce the rate of abuse in the United States.