Drug overdose deaths are a growing problem in the United States and across the globe. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in 2014—One and a half times more people than were killed in car crashes. These alarming statistics are largely due to the dramatic increase in prescription drug abuse, specifically opioids such as morphine, codeine, and oxycodone. The biggest increase in deaths were due to synthetic opioids, which increased by 80 percent.
Many people who abuse prescription painkillers turn to heroin as a cheaper, easier to obtain alternative. Prescription painkiller compounds are derived from the same poppy plant from which heroin is obtained. Heroin overdose deaths rose by 26 percent, and this is likely linked to the increase in prescription drug abuse seen across the United States. The opioid epidemic is single-handedly one of the most devastating contributors to overdose deaths in recent years, with opioid-related deaths rising by 200 percent since the year 2000. Despite formulation changes in an attempt to address opioid abuse, the death toll continues to rise.
Who is Affected by This?
When talking about drug addiction, many people have a specific mental image of what a drug addict is supposed to look like. Many associate addiction with the homeless, criminals, teenagers, or even a specific region of the country, but some of the people most affected by the increase of opioid-related deaths do not fall into these categories. In fact, the states with the highest rates of overdose related to opioid abuse are West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio.
There is often a misconception that the states with the highest rate of drug addiction are those with the most urban lifestyle, or those that border Mexico, and while these states are not without their own share of problems, many are surprised to find that small rural states in the Northeast are the most heavily impacted. The face of addiction has changed dramatically over the years, and this is largely due to the influx of prescription drugs. Many people who find themselves addicted to these medications are those who were prescribed them for legitimate ailments. Due to the increase in availability, prescription drug abuse thrives in older, white, suburban communities, a place that many people do not stereotype as a haven for drug addiction. In fact, many of the states with high drug-trafficking concerns such as Florida, California, and Texas had lower rates of overdose deaths than the national average.
People are living longer, and with old age comes illnesses, ailments, and lifestyle changes that can influence dependency and addiction. Many are treated with painkillers for a variety of conditions in order to make living more comfortable, but the side effects of use can produce feelings of euphoria that may tempt the patient to misuse the drug. If a person experiences feelings of loneliness, depression, and other negative emotions, the side effects of painkillers can mask those feelings. There are a number of regional influences that can also attribute to this growing number of overdose deaths. For example, states with the highest rates of opioid overdoses are primarily in areas that experience long bouts of cold weather. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can also contribute to increases in substance abuse as many use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate for symptoms of SAD.
Addressing the Epidemic
The misconception surrounding the safety of prescription medications further fuels the fire of abuse and makes it easier for people to justify use rather than seeking out prescription drug addiction treatment. Many are turning to cheaper, easier to abuse alternatives—such as heroin—in order to achieve the same effects. When combating the growing problem associated with opioid abuse, it is important to educate consumers, identify alternative ways to manage pain aside from using painkillers, and monitor who has access to these medications. Prescription painkillers can be found in countless households across the United States, making it easier for people to take drugs not intended for them. The misconception surrounding the safety of prescription medications further fuels the fire of abuse and makes it easier for people to justify use.
Although there is pushback from patients, doctors, and drug manufacturers, the trends identified by the CDC indicate that the way in which prescription drugs are made available must be reevaluated. The increase in overdose deaths directly correlates with the increase in painkiller prescriptions written for patients. Experts state that prescription opioid sales have increased by 300 percent since 1999 and continue to grow.
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