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The New Face of Drug Addiction

Putting the risks posed by legal drug addiction and its human cost to the US into perspective.

By Wilf VossPublished 7 years ago 6 min read

America is being overtaken with a drug crisis and for once it is not illegal drugs, rather the rise in the use, and abuse of prescription painkillers. According to a recent study, 1 in 3 Americans (35%) are regularly prescribed painkillers by medical professionals. In fact, the total number of painkiller users is closer to 40% when you factor in people who obtain painkillers from other sources, including internet purchases and drugs prescribed to others.

It may seem that there is no obvious issue with these statistics. We live in a world where we are expected to do more than ever and cannot stop for minor aches and pains. They are seen as a nuisance which we have no time for. Painkillers allow us to maintain our momentum in the fast paced world in which we live, a world where illness is so often considered a form of weakness. If we feel a headache coming on or a nagging pain, we pop a couple of pills and are able to continue to face the day.

However, there is an increasing issue with painkiller addiction. Many prescription painkillers are opioid based, a highly addictive group of chemicals which, in its less than legal form includes heroin.

It is all too simple to rely on prescription, or over-the-counter drugs to keep going. However, many people do not realize that they are building a tolerance to these drugs until it is too late and it becomes almost impossible to stop taking them.

The problem with opioid painkiller addiction has become so serious in the US that the White House commission on opioid addiction has asked the president to declare a national public health emergency.

What are opioid painkillers?

Opioids are chemicals which act on opioid receptors in your central nervous system, blocking pain signals. They include a number of well known over the counter and prescription painkillers like Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Codeine and Fentanyl, all of which are perfectly safe when used for short periods as instructed by medical professionals,

If you use the drugs regularly they can lead to dependence, creating an addiction which means many users inadvertently start to misuse the drugs as their body builds tolerance, finding they need to take more painkillers just to get the same effect. This is also impacted as the drugs not only relieve pain but also produce a euphoric feeling which the user can start to crave, driving demand for more and more.

The greatest risk occurs when individuals start to take the drugs without medical advice. A study showed that, in 2015 there were over 12 million people who took prescription painkillers without consulting a medical professional, not understanding the potential risks that may be involved.

The issue is that opioid painkillers are all too easy to get hold of. They are freely available over the counter or can be obtained by using prescription drugs from other people such as members of the family. It means a drug which is otherwise a highly effective and safe painkiller when prescribed correctly by a doctor, can lead to a serious addiction and considerable risk for the user.

Although opioids are part of the family of drugs which includes heroin, they are not illegal and therefore there is no perception of illegality and certainly there is not the same perception of harm as its illegal cousins. However, as with any medicine there are risks and side effects, especially when they are taken without a doctor, or healthcare professional's advice.

Over two million Americans are known to have a substance misuse disorder, a condition causing individuals to keep taking painkillers despite the negative consequences. Putting this into perspective, that is a number of people roughly equivalent to the entire population of New Mexico.

Worse still, misuse can cause a greatly increased risk of overdose, the single leading cause of accidental death in the US. During 2015 there were over fifty thousand people killed by drug overdoses, over twenty thousand of those deaths were directly related to the misuse of prescription pain relief.

When you look at the numbers, you can start to see the true scope of the problem facing the US. The White House opioid commission report states there are 142 deaths per day from painkiller abuse.

To put this into perspective, it means every three weeks in the US more people die from painkiller addiction than died in the September 11th attacks. In addition there is a massive financial burden which exceeds $78.5 Billion per year, as estimated by the CDC.

A more sobering statistic is that more Americans were killed between 1999 and 2005 through the misuse of opioid painkillers than the total number who were killed in World War 1, Vietnam and the Korean wars combined. Now we can clearly understand how serious the issue of opioid addiction is for the nation. It is simple to think of drug addiction and overdoses to be something which happens to illegal drug takers and not something which could possibly affect middle America, but as the numbers show this is a problem affecting all walks of life and every part of the country.

The problem with opioid painkiller addiction has become so serious in the US that the White House commission on opioid addiction has asked the president to declare a national public health emergency. In October 2017 President Trump declared that the situation was a “national shame”. Mr Trump signed a presidential memorandum directing his acting health secretary to declare a nationwide public health emergency and ordering all federal agencies to take measures to reduce the number of opioid deaths.

Recognizing and stopping opioid abuse.

It can be all too simple to slip into opioid abuse, tolerance to the drug increases with time requiring an increasingly higher dose to get the same effects, and unlike illegal drugs there are easy to obtain and a user is unlikely to display signs that they are addicted. In some cases an individual may show no outward signs of an increased dependence to opioids.

However, if you are concerned for a friend or loved one there are a number of things you can look out for:

  1. They are tired - You may find that they are persistently tired with an inability to concentrate and their sleep habits may change. You may find that they are suddenly drowsy and fall asleep while watching TV. Opioids can cause drowsiness, however they can also affect the quality of the users nighttime sleep, causing insomnia.
  2. They may become more isolated - They may be less likely to socialize, becoming lethargic and their mood more repressed.
  3. They have issues at work - They start to have issues with, missing deadlines or increased absences. These can be signs of an increasing addiction.
  4. They may have a decreased libido - Excessive use of opioids lowers testosterone and estrogen levels which are required for normal sexual function and libido.
  5. They may lose weight - Opioids can cause metabolic changes within the mesolimbic area of the brain which directly affects the release of the chemical dopamine. These changes can affect appetite leading to weight loss.
  6. They may often have flu like symptoms - Feeling sick and having headaches may not indicate flu but instead may be signs of withdrawal symptoms.

Understanding the risk of overdose.

Once an individual becomes addicted to opioids they need to take larger doses to get the same effect as their body becomes more tolerant of the drug, leading to the serious risk of overdose which can be life threatening. If you encounter someone who you suspect has overdosed you should contact a medical professional immediately. The major symptoms of overdose are:

Their pupils will be pinpoints - Looking at their eyes you will see that their pupils are abnormally small, even in normal light. Usually the pupil controls the amount of light which enters your eye, working like a camera shutter. In low light conditions the pupils expand to allow in more of the limited light. In an overdose the pupils will remain tiny.

Their breathing may be slow (or have stopped) - opioids can cause respiratory depression meaning that the breathing rate can slow to a point that the body has an increased level of carbon dioxide and it does not receive enough oxygen.They may become unconsciousness or non-responsive.

Opioid overdose is a highly dangerous condition which can lead to permanent damage or even death. Call 911 as quickly as possible and keep the patient safe, making sure they can breathe easily. If their breathing has stopped, a trained person should perform CPR.

Breaking the opioid cycle.

Individuals are pivotal in ensuring they remain safe and there are a number of simple points which can be followed including making sure you always follow the instructions which are provided with medicines and that you don’t exceed the dose for opioid drugs.

It is important to understand any potential interactions with other drugs and alcohol, your doctor or pharmacist can help you understand how you should take your drugs. It is vital that you only use your own medicines and do not share opioids with others who may be adversely affected.

Possibly the greatest requirement is for people to become more aware of the risks which can be involved with taking painkillers and not to rely on them alone to get through the day. If you need help, call on your doctor or healthcare professional who can support and assist you.


About the Creator

Wilf Voss

After a career in event management and marketing culminating in being part of the team which created the London 2012 Olympics. Wilf now runs a seaside ice cream parlour and writes in his spare time.

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