Opioid abuse has become an all-American epidemic, unique to our country and widespread enough to be called a public health outbreak. Abuse covers all ages, races, classes, and genders, however, the most typical victim is a non-Hispanic Caucasian male in his mid-30s.
In emergency rooms, nurses are not surprised when new overdose patients are rolled in on stretchers. Overdose is becoming so widely common that many doctors no longer need to run lab tests to determine which drug caused it. Observations such as dilated pupils mean cocaine, amphetamines, and hallucinogens. Constricted pupils almost always point to an opiate.
Opiate abuse also causes the characteristic “nodding out”, scratching, cold and clammy skin. In the wrong amounts, overdose is always just a few breaths away – and when that breath begins to sound like a rattle – the person is officially in the midst of an overdose that all too frequently leads to death.
The thought of a loved one – anyone – dying like this is terrifying, and reality is that every 19 minutes, one person in this country dies of opioid overdose. Hydrocodone, OxyContin, and Percocet are three examples of this medication, the only one known to man that is routinely prescribed and kills patients so frequently.
How Did The Opioid Epidemic Get So Bad?
The United States is embarrassingly leading the charge in opioid abuse. 75% of the world’s opioid prescription drugs are prescribed here, and it is the number one cause of preventable death. We can’t point our fingers in one direction to place blame, however, certain pharmaceutical companies and doctors certainly had a heavy hand in leading to these statistics.
The FDA was misled for years about the true nature of opioid dependence so that big pharmaceutical companies could sell more drugs and make more money. Doctors often turn a blind eye to the reality of these drugs, accepting lame scientific data and continue writing out prescriptions, ignoring the obvious red flags.
Some staggering facts include:
- 259 million opioid prescriptions are written yearly – enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills
- 91% of people who survived an overdose are able to get a new prescription, often from the same doctor
- 80% of heroin users started off using pain pills
- As many as 4.2 million Americans have reported using heroin at least once
- 94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were more expensive and difficult to obtain.
- Heroin overdose deaths in women have tripled in the past few years.
The opioid industry has gotten so huge that it will take a long time to shift practices and make a positive change. As policy makers start to learn about the epidemic – and it can’t be ignored for much longer – they will begin to modify regulations. Small changes can already be seen, pills coming with safeguards to make them more difficult to abuse, the Centers for Disease Control recommending doctors not to prescribe opioids for chronic pain, monitoring of controlled substances, but much of the responsibility lies with each doctor.
Doctors need to discuss options and the realities of addiction with their patients and be more vigilant in what and how they are prescribing medications. Expectations must be set, and follow up is necessary. Knowing more about a patient’s history is key – for example, if a patient has a history of drug or alcohol abuse, they should never be prescribed addictive drugs. Opioids should always be considered an end-of-the-line resource instead of the first thing handed out.
Those of us in recovery are tired of hearing about friends and loved ones overdosing. We are sick of the same familiar and sad story. It isn’t too late to make a change, but in order for the severity of this to end, doctors need to step up and tighten up their prescription policies.