A wide range of drugs can be classified as opiates, including legal, prescription medications such as codeine and morphine and illegal “street drugs” like heroin. When taken as directed and used for the short-term relief of chronic pain, opiate drugs can be effective and safe. Unfortunately, opiates can also be highly addictive and contribute to serious health issues if a dependence develops or when such drugs are taken in larger doses than intended.
The Heroin Epidemic
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), heroin is the most abused street drug. Once relegated primarily to the Northeast and Midwest, the heroin epidemic has spread across much of the United States. Heroin use in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2013. Each year, more than 200,000 people try heroin for the first time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin-related overdoses claim more than 8,000 lives each year in the U.S.
Prescription Pain Medications
Resulting in 44 overdoses per day, prescription drugs are a significant part of the opiate epidemic. With more than 200 million prescriptions for painkillers written each year in the U.S., there’s widespread potential for both intentional and unintentional misuse. Approximately 400,000 of the million or so ER visits for prescription drug issues in 2013 were due to opiate drugs. Opiates are responsible for more than half of all overdose deaths due to prescription drugs each year in the U.S.
Affecting People of All Ages
The majority of opiate-related deaths occur in people between the ages of 25 and 54. Even so, opiate misuse and addiction is a growing concern for older adults. Emergency room visits due to opiate overdoses and adverse reactions within this age group spiked by nearly 80 percent between 2006 and 2012.
Widespread Availability of Opiates
Despite only accounting for about 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes approximately 80 percent of the opiates available throughout the world. While efforts are being made to monitor patients better and share data across state lines to prevent doctor shopping, opiate drugs remain easily accessible.
Nearly 40 million Americans may be affected by some type of dependence on opiates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Because opiate drugs affect chemical processes in the brain, overcoming an addiction to opiates presents many challenges. Recovery often involves supervised detox and withdrawal and a personalized follow-up treatment plan.