The CDC recently estimated that there are over 1,000 visits daily to the emergency room and 91 deaths related to opioid overdose. To put those numbers perspective, consider this: more people die from overdoses than influenza and pneumonia each year. There are certainly people battling chronic illnesses and other health conditions who need access to opioids. But opioid addiction is a chronic disease in itself. It’s time we face the increased risk surrounding those medications.
Addiction as a disease
Drugs come with a powerful stigma. Although treated seriously by many healthcare professionals, many people fail to understand that addiction isn’t a personal flaw or weakness. Complex factors interact that prompt this disease to come with serious – and oftentimes fatal – consequences. This is what is at the heart of the opioid epidemic.
The American Psychiatric Association acknowledged it as “severe as a substance use disorder” with both physical and psychological symptoms. Opioids frequently lead to addiction due to their powerful effects and the false perception by drug manufacturers that they are safe.
What are the symptoms of substance use disorder?
The DSM-V outlines a pattern of problematic substance use patterns into 11 diagnostic criteria. The severity of the addiction is measured over the course of 12 months:
- mild disorder: those who fit 2-3 criteria
- moderate disorder: those who fit 4-5 criteria
- severe disorder: those who fit more than 6 criteria
The categories are intended to cover most aspects of drug misuse. This includes taking more than the prescribed amount, experiencing cravings and missing social opportunities or work.
Opioid addiction is a societal problem
One of the primary causes of the opioid epidemic may be that many simply don’t realize how powerful opioids are. Many still believe that only illegal drugs lead to problems. They may also believe that if a medication comes from a doctor that it’s safe. On the contrary, prescription opioids can indeed be dangerous and are highly addictive.
Another major component of the opioid crisis is that limits on “opioid prescriptions for the purpose of saving lives would cause people to turn to heroin or fentanyl.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s national-level general population heroin data, “nearly 80% of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin.” It’s clear that opioid addiction can easily lead to a vicious downward spiral – one that greatly impacts our communities.
Why is opioid addiction so serious?
Doctors have known for hundreds of years that opioids are very dangerous. During and after the Civil War, many people became addicted to morphine. So pharmacists created heroin, which was intended to be a safe alternative to morphine to prevent overdose deaths.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before the incredible dangers of heroin manifested themselves. Drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet were marketed as modern alternatives and as chronic pain relievers with a lower risk of addiction. That has been proven false.
Any drug in this family changes the chemistry of people’s brains. Within a short amount of time, people can develop a tolerance. This means that they have to take more of the drug to achieve the same effect. Over time, a dependence develops.