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The Opioid Epidemic

Over the past 10 years, a growing epidemic is affecting millions of Americans regardless of age, education, sex, or wealth. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2014, 1.9 million Americans had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin. The opioid epidemic–including prescription drug abuse and heroin–kills more than 27,000 people each year. Deadly drug overdoses are now the number one cause of accidental death, responsible for more deaths than car accidents.

Opioids are a class of prescription pain medications including oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and morphine. Heroin is included in the same class of drugs. Many heroin users first misuse prescription pain medications before making the switch.

What are the reasons for the opioid epidemic? In recent years, overdose death rates, opioid sales, and substance use disorder treatment admissions connected opioids increased at the same rate. From 1991 to 2011, the number of painkiller prescriptions tripled to 219 million. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in some states, there are more prescriptions for painkillers than there are people. This rise coincided with an increase in the amount of heroin coming into the US from drug cartels. In just a few years, these factors led to the dramatic epidemic occurring today.

The White House recently unveiled plans utilizing federal, state, local and private sector efforts to address the prescription drug abuse and heroin epidemic. The plans include properly training health professionals who are prescribing opioids and increasing access to treatment.

Treatment can only occur when a problem is first identified. Many times, those addicted to opioids are able to keep their addiction a secret for years. Some symptoms to watch for in a loved one include:

  • Increased anxiety, euphoria, and self-esteem
  • Depression, withdrawal, irritability
  • Taking more pills than necessary or for longer than prescribed
  • Failed attempts at reducing amount of painkillers needed
  • Difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, and physical agitation

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, there are steps you can take. Anonymous online screenings are available at to identify if symptoms of addiction are present. These screenings connect individuals with local treatment options and helpful resources. Professional help is needed to successfully recover from opioid addiction.

Despite the overwhelming statistics of the opioid epidemic, the problem has been identified and many groups are taking an active role to help the millions who are struggling. Learning the symptoms and supporting loved ones can make a difference in preventing addiction.