Risky Rx: A Glimpse into the Opioid Epidemic

Since the beginning of mankind, we have sought to cure our imperfections, our ailments, and our illnesses. Apothecaries from ancient times brewed concoctions and potions to rid people of impurities and ward off deleterious miasmas. If it weren’t for the remedies that we’ve discovered over the millennia, we may not have been able to enjoy a longer lifespan and improved quality of life.

As we learned more about these concoctions, our natural propensity for human error became evident as we used and abused these medicinal curiosities. Even the most well-intended medicines like antibiotics have been misused in hopes to rid mankind of bacterial pathogens. But in attempting to master this microscopic domain, we have spawned the age of the superbug and now face the possibility of being thrust into a world where antibiotics are of little to no use against common infectious agents.

In much the same way, we find ourselves amidst a vicious epidemic that has swept across the nation. People are misusing a drug and its derivatives, and it’s now a public health emergency. As we tested the limitations of these drugs, we climbed deeper and deeper into the epidemic.

Over the past decade, the epidemic gained momentum as it silently worked its way from city streets to middle class households. It wormed its way from recreational uses to doctor’s offices to drug dealers to the medicine cabinets of frazzled moms and their youngsters seeking a new high.

This is the opioid epidemic.

Many events over the last decade contributed to this epidemic, including the release of OxyContin and its aggressive marketing, along with a rise in the availability and affordability of heroin.

In truth, opioids have been around for a long, long time. These drugs are derived from the seeds of the poppy flower, and have been used for their analgesic effects to alleviate pain. As codeine and morphine were used to suppress coughing and ameliorate pain, new derivatives like heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone grew in popularity for their potency. The synthetic drug known as fentanyl is the strongest of these derivatives.

All of these are known as opioids, and they are to be taken very seriously. Although some of the opioids are used for improving our lives and helping us to cope with disease, misusing any of these drugs can have grave effects.

For example, the current opioid epidemic was a culmination of various events, and there’s not just one person to blame for it. Instead, years of doctor prescriptions, pharmaceutical marketing, street drug use, and lack of drug education have led us to where we are today.

Nearly 40 people die from a prescription opioid overdose every day.

But the epidemic doesn’t stop at prescription opioids. Often, prescription drugs are the gateway to street drugs like heroin since it tends to be cheaper and does not require a prescription. If someone is prescribed OxyContin for two weeks, but the prescription has no refills, a person might find it more convenient and affordable to purchase heroin illegally for a similar effect.

As a result, 75% of heroin users started out on prescription opioids.

But why don’t they stop taking these drugs? Why can’t they end their prescription and move on?

Often, the answer is more complicated. Opioid dependence could occur due to a family history of drug dependence. For others, the feeling of euphoria could bring peace into their otherwise harried lifestyles.

Recently, the governor of Virginia, my home state, declared the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency. This means that the epidemic creates a risk to the communities and economy of Virginia. In response to this declaration, Virginia has made efforts to increase the availability of Naloxone.

Naloxone is a drug administered to those who overdose on heroin and other opioids. Naloxone outcompetes the other drugs for the receptor binding sites in the brain, essentially blocking other opioids from affecting an individual and ultimately reversing the overdose. It’s a lifesaving drug that’s being readily dispensed to individuals and families who might encounter someone with an overdose.

Other ways to avoid misuse and abuse of opioids include the proper disposal of these drugs. Local health departments encourage citizens to dispose of their unused prescription drugs so that pharmacies and other authorized entities can properly destroy them.

One of the most important things anyone can do to help stop the spread of this epidemic is to be a source of support. Knowing the signs of addiction, knowing what to do in overdose situations, and taking the time to talk to loved ones about opioids is extremely important.

Addiction is an illness. It causes imbalances in brain function that distorts one’s priorities so that a person feels it’s more important to get the next high than to worry about anything else.

For this reason, the CDC has prompted physicians and other health providers to talk to patients about their family histories of substance abuse and dependence, discuss the risks of opioids, follow up with patients during the drug treatment phase, monitor drug compliance, offer substance abuse treatment, and consider alternatives to pain management that extend beyond drug administration.

For some, opioid medication might be the most effective solution to long-term pain, such as those in palliative care. For others who might be recovering from minor surgeries or injuries, alternatives to opioids such as physical therapy and other mobility exercises can help to improve functioning and independence for faster healing and effective pain monitoring.

Like I said before, there’s not one person who can take the blame for this epidemic. Pharmaceuticals pushing for profits, doctors following the status quo, drug lords seeking creative ways to expand their territories, and people opting for the convenience of medication have all contributed to the epidemic in some way.

In order to truly fight this epidemic, we need to disband the negative connotation associated with the words ‘addiction’ and ‘dependence.’ Being addicted or dependent on drugs is a mental illness that needs to be addressed and treated accordingly. Like with any other disease, we need to exercise compassion, understanding, and patience. When we end the stigma, we can begin to empower those who need help the most. Otherwise, we might be fighting this epidemic for much longer than we already have.

Stay healthy!


To find out more about the opioid epidemic and what’s currently being done about it, visit the CDC website or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Photo credit:Lisa Marie Cannon

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