Surely, you are aware that the United States is in the midst of an officially declared health crisis known as the opioid epidemic. Although opiates have been around for millions of years and have been consumed by humans for thousands in various forms, the actual epidemic really took off in the early 2000s, thanks to over-prescription of opioid painkillers by doctors nationwide. Certainly, opioids do help to offer relief for people experiencing debilitating pain, but aggressive marketing strategies by pharmaceutical companies led to widespread prescription with little direction or management for patients. In turn, this has resulted in mass addiction and now many thousands of deaths.
In fact, every day, over 130 people in the United States die from opioids. There are a great deal of education, information, and programs available today attempting to curtail this, but rather than decreasing, this number just continues to increase. Families from all socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, backgrounds, and walks of life have been and continue to be affected by this. The amount of tragedy is overwhelming and for many is almost too much to bear.
According to the World Health Organization, overdose deaths are the cause of between one-third and one-half of all drug-related deaths, and the majority of overdoses are due to opiates or opioids. Many people who were initially prescribed opioids for legitimate pain and suffering quickly found themselves addicted. In fact, according to research, the likelihood of long term dependence and eventual addiction increases immensely after just five days of taking opioids. Many people can and do break free from this addiction, but less than 10% of people who need treatment for opioid or opiate dependence and addiction are actually receiving it.
Risk Factors for Overdose
People who are dependent on opioids are likely to experience an overdose in some manner eventually if they continue to use and don’t seek treatment. Although the individual chance of fatal opioid overdose sounds small at 0.65% per year, this figure is actually quite high. The odds of dying of an accidental opioid overdose in the United States in one’s lifetime recently surpassed the odds of dying in a car crash.
Further, a much higher percentage – 45% – of users experience non-fatal overdose during their lifetimes if they continue to use, and as many as 70% of users have witnessed or will witness a drug overdose at some point.
Overdose is the result of taking too much of a drug, but there are many factors that play a part in their occurrence. Of course, the more frequently someone uses, the more likely it is that he or she will overdose at some point. Further, though, people who mix drugs and alcohol are at high risk, since both substances work as depressants on the body. People who are sick or physically unwell in general are also at higher risk of overdose, and people who use alone are as well.
The people at perhaps the highest risk of overdose are, sadly, people who have been working on their recovery. When relapsing, these men and women often give themselves the same dosage that they used when they were actively addicted, but because they have been drug-free for some time, they no longer have the same level of tolerance. These types of relapses have resulted in many tragic deaths.
Individuals who have survived an overdose in the past are much more likely to die of an overdose in the future. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, their risk of overdose is multiplied by an incredible and sad 130.
When an Overdose Occurs
When someone dies from opioid or opiate overdose, he or she actually suffocates. These substances have a depressive effect on the part of the brain that regulates breathing and, in time, breathing slows to a point where too little oxygen is delivered to the brain.
There are three main symptoms of an overdose. Pinpoint pupils are often the first sign that someone is headed in that direction. Respiratory depression and distress usually come next, followed by unconsciousness. These three symptoms and signs are commonly known as the overdose triad.
Once an individual is unconscious, he or she can still be saved if there is quick intervention. Administration of naloxone can reverse the symptoms and acts as an antidote to overdose. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, over 26,000 lives were saved by naloxone from 1996 to 2014, and surely there have been many more since.
Medical professionals have access to naloxone, but today, more and more members of law enforcement also carry it, and regular citizens have access to it in most cities and states as well. If you know someone who uses opiates or opioids, it is a good idea to have some naloxone on hand in your home or on your person at all times.
Of course, the best way to avoid an opioid or opiate overdose is to not start using in the first place. However, if you or someone you love is using, seek help immediately and get treatment. Getting clean from opioids or opiates is certainly not easy, but it is possible, and people succeed in recovery every day.
Further, although the over-prescription of opioids has been somewhat curtailed in recent years, there is still a long way to go. Write to your government officials and encourage them to continue to fight hard against this epidemic. Things are getting better, but many more lives will be lost as a result of these drugs.
The opioid epidemic is one of the most difficult things our country has faced in the past century. Knowing the signs of opioid or opiate overdose and knowing what to do in the event of one are crucial steps in saving lives.
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