Shocking facts about opioid epidemic in the United States

Shocking facts about opioid epidemic in the United States

Last Reviewed : 12/18/2020
Shocking facts about opioid epidemic in the United States

The United States is currently experiencing an opioid epidemic with more than 72,000 deaths in the year 2017 due to drug overdose. From the same study, 68% of these deaths were due to opioid overdose. Essentially, the deaths that occurred in 2017 were mainly due to the misuse of prescription or non-prescription opioids. In comparison with such deaths in 1997, this study shows that it has increased up to ten times some 20 years later.

Curbing the Ugly Trend

According to the statistical data obtained in the year 2017, about 130 Americans die every day from a cause related to opioids. Well, that is also same as saying that every 11 minutes, an American dies from overdose of opioids. And every day, thousands of young adults are being exposed to an opioid for the first time. To curb this growing epidemic, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared October 16th, 2017 a public health emergency. The Agency also announced a strategy to combat this crisis.

Understanding Opium and its Impact

Opium is a natural ingredient in the poppy plants and has powerful analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. With respect to its function, opioids are drugs made to duplicate the effect of opium on the brain. These include prescription drugs like Morphine, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone and other illicit drugs like Heroin and Fentanyl.

Looking at stats, drug overdose killed about 72,000 people in the year 2017, which is 21% higher than the previous year. The increase in deaths due to opioid abuse has been linked to increased use of prescription opioids.

Opioid medications increase the levels of dopamine in certain areas of the brain related to control of pain and emotions. This coupled effect while producing the relief from pain also produces a feeling of euphoria. Over a period of time, the effects produced by these drugs decrease due to development of tolerance to the drugs. As people get used to it, they start taking more and more amount of the drug to get the same effect. This property leads to user dependence and later addiction to the drug.

Opioid Abuse

Most patients misuse opioids from prescription drugs. Researchers say that they either take opioids higher than their prescribed doses, or use opioids that have been prescribed for someone else. Non-medical use of opioids is a major cause of the mortality and morbidity. Some patients seek opioids for euphoric effects, but most of them have used opioids for a chronic period and developed dependence to the drugs and cannot stop them in fear of the withdrawal syndrome. These patients, over a period of time, go on to use heroin and other substances. Data shows that 80% of people who misuse heroin have a history of prescription drug abuse.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), a greater number of drug abuse related deaths were due to synthetic opioids like Fentanyl rather than heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or methadone. The opioid misused in the previous year was also found to be fentanyl.

Medical Use of Opioids

Opioids are required to treat short-term acute pain or cancer related pain. A distinction has to be made among an acute pain, cancer pain and chronic non-cancer pain. Most of the opioid misuse is seen in the management of chronic non-cancer pain. Evidence based medicine does not support the use opioids for chronic pain. They are essentially indicated only in active cancer treatment or palliative treatment or in conditions where other treatment options have failed to manage pain. Prescription of opioid drugs without appropriate indications, appropriate precautions and in excessive doses has led to the emergence of opioid epidemic in America.

What’s more? Opioids misuse imparts an economic burden of $78.5 billion a year which includes the cost of healthcare, criminal justice involvement and treatment of addiction.

In addition, opioid abuse has devastating consequences such as the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which occurs as a result of opioid use and misuse during pregnancy. Another astonishing fact is that the number of children hospitalized due to opioid abuse has doubled over the last decade. Most of these children are teenagers and about one third of them below the age of six years. Increased use of injection drugs is associated with increased spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis that spread through the use of non-sterile syringes and needles.

Overcoming Opioid Crises

The strategy for overcoming opioid crisis introduced by the United States Health and Human Services includes five specific priorities:

  • Increasing the accessibility to treatment and recovery services.
  • Promoting the antidotes to overdose drugs
  • Improving our knowledge of the epidemic by better public health surveillance
  • Support research on pain and addiction
  • Advancing better strategies for pain management.

Opioid overdose classically presents with a triad of symptoms which include:

  • Pin-point pupils
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory depression.

On the other hand, naloxone is a life-saving drug in emergencies related to opioid abuse. It can reverse all effects of opioid overdose especially, respiratory depression which is the most important cause of death. It can also reduce the number of deaths occurring due to opioids if administered in time. It is not very expensive and easily available at pharmacies.

Preventing opioid addiction and dependence

Careful pain management options with other analgesics is recommended as there is not enough proof to suggest a benefit from use of opioids for functional disorders. If and when indicated for causes other than cancer, only a short-term opioid treatment is preferred. The longer the duration for which opioids are taken, the higher are the chances of the person getting addicted to them. Risk of addiction starts as early as 5 days into the treatment.

Similarly, withdrawal symptoms are responsible for many patients continuing the drug long after the recommended treatment duration. Sudden decrease in consumption of opioids can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, hence opioids must always be tapered over a period of time before stopping. Safer drug disposal policies and treatment monitoring systems have been implemented to help prevent the opioid addiction.


Coasting home, this piece raises the awareness on opioid abuse in the United States and its shocking implication. One can easily deduce from the piece that the impact is debilitating. Consequently, relevant agencies in the United States are working round the clock to stem the tide. Apart from concerned agencies, nonprofits have also expended a significant percentage of their resources trying to enlighten the general public on the consequences of opioid abuse.

If you are addicted to opioid consumption, that’s understandable. However, you must take steps to wean yourself off its addiction. Already, this piece has succinctly discussed how to withdraw from it and the hurdles you must surmount. Nevertheless, if you find it difficult to do, you are firmly advised to consult a specialist.


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