The Opioid Epidemic and Fentanyl Crisis
Table of Contents
In recent years opioid use and abuse have skyrocketed in communities across the world. While there are many factors that have contributed to the steep rise in opioid use and abuse across the United States – it is clear that opioid addiction presents a major threat to public health.
Overdoses are reaching an all-time high and opioid use becomes increasingly dangerous as individuals seek out opioids on the streets that are unregulated. The epidemic has had a devastating impact on families across the world, losing loved ones too soon to opioid addiction. Fortunately, advancements in science and public health knowledge have provided some options for relief for those actively using opioids. Additionally, much is being done in terms of making treatment for opioid addiction accessible to more people than ever before.
However, educating oneself on the power of opioids and the danger of opioid addiction is essential for prevention and recovery. Addiction to opioids is a serious matter that requires intervention from medical professionals who are well versed in opioids and their impact on the body. In recent years, opioid use and abuse have grown so much that the opioid epidemic has become a serious national crisis. The opioid epidemic impacts not only public health but social and economic welfare as well.1
Strategies on how to combat the opioid epidemic are becoming clearer, with the central aim being to save more lives from accidental overdose and educating individuals on the addictive properties of opioids, whether they are prescribed by a medical professional or purchased as street drugs.
The Opioid Epidemic at a Glance
In 2020 accidental drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high in the United States. Approximately 91,799 deaths were caused by drug overdoses – this number includes illicit drug use and prescription overdoses.2 Also, in 2020, it was reported that approximately 48,006 of those deaths were attributed to overdosing on synthetic opioids.1
Conversely, in recent years, data, indicates that drug overdoses from heroin are on the declining trend.2 From these trends, we can see that synthetic opioids are becoming more lethal than heroin in terms of the number of deaths caused by overdose.2
Every year, families face the devastation of losing loved ones to opioid-related deaths, not to mention the families who are witnessing their loved ones struggling with the negative impacts of addiction. With numbers like these it can be hard to understand just how this epidemic grew so quickly into the public health crisis it is today.
Synthetic opioids did not become readily available until the 1990s when drug manufacturers started marketing prescription opioids as non-addictive. Opioids are often prescribed by medical professionals to treat moderate to severe pain. These claims have proven false over the years as the addictive nature of synthetic opioids has become increasingly apparent.
Additionally, over the years, there has been an increase in the acceptance of prescribing opioids to patients who suffer from chronic pain – meaning these individuals are likely to consume prescription opioids for an extended period of time.3 Opioids are highly-addictive drugs that contribute to the misuse and abuse of prescriptions by millions of individuals. The popularity of opioids for treating chronic pain has contributed to the rise in opioid-related deaths in recent years, along with the increased potency of synthetic opioids on the market.
Naturally, the impact of having relatively easy access to a highly addictive substance has created a devastating drug epidemic. While the rate of prescribing synthetic opioids varies from state to state, it is clear that people from all walks of life and all ages are vulnerable to opioid addiction.
According to data, in 2019, over 10 million people misused their prescription opioid medication.1 With such high numbers, it is clear that the epidemic is widespread. Data is tracked showing the states that have the highest rate of opioids prescribed by medical professionals, along with the states that have the lowest rate of prescription synthetic opioids.
Prevention is key to avoiding a continued increase in opioid-related deaths. However, additional measures such as life-saving medications and increased access to treatment are essential for combating this public health crisis. Professionals are working hard toward new and innovative solutions that can potentially save thousands if not millions of lives.
What is Fentanyl?
The synthetic opioid fentanyl has gained a lot of traction in recent years, mostly due to the information surrounding the potency of the drug and its role in accidental overdoses. Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times stronger than the synthetic opioid morphine and about 50 times more powerful than heroin.4
As prescribed, fentanyl is typically used to treat patients with severe pain – especially after surgery. Additionally, professionals may prescribe fentanyl to patients with chronic pain who may have a physical tolerance to other prescription opioids.4 However, fentanyl can also be manufactured illegally – making the drug highly dangerous.
Due to the potency of fentanyl, the drug is highly addictive to individuals regardless of if it is prescribed to them by a medical professional or sold to them illegally. Individuals who are taking fentanyl as prescribed by a doctor may still experience dependence or addiction to the drug.4
While individuals can be physically dependent on the drug, that does not always mean that they are addicted to the drug. However, in some cases, dependence on fentanyl can lead to addiction – just as is the same with other synthetic opioids. Individuals who are addicted to fentanyl will experience severe withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drug. Symptoms can be incredibly painful and uncomfortable, which contributes to the reason why so many people find it difficult to stop.4
If you or a loved one has been prescribed fentanyl or you suspect illicit use of the drug, it is important to understand how to identify the symptoms of withdrawal.
Symptoms of Fentanyl Withdrawal 4
While fentanyl can be prescribed through medical professionals, the drug is being illegally manufactured without any oversight and sold illegally. As mentioned previously, fentanyl can be dangerously addictive whether or not it is taken as a prescription or purchased on the street illegally. Most recently, data is showing that fentanyl-related harm, death, and overdose is most commonly linked to fentanyl that is made illegally.3
Fentanyl that is sold through illegal channels is popular due to having similar properties and a similar effect on the body as heroin. Oftentimes, it is mixed into other mind-altering substances to increase the overall effect of the drug. In these cases, fentanyl is added to other substances with or without the user’s knowledge.3
When fentanyl is mixed into a substance without the knowledge of the user, that individual then becomes vulnerable to dependence or addiction to fentanyl without even knowing it. In the most devastating cases, individuals who are unaware of ingesting fentanyl end up falling victim to accidental overdose due to the potency of the drug.
Unfortunately, teens and young adults have fallen victims to accidental overdoses from ingesting fentanyl. In 2021, 77% of all teen overdose deaths involved fentanyl.
Teen deaths from fentanyl differ from adults in that teens are not ingesting the drug through illicit heroin usage. Instead, teenagers who are seeking out prescription opioid pills such as Vicodin or OxyContin find counterfeit versions of these medications that have increasingly become contaminated with fentanyl.5
It is important to recognize that while this is a devastating trend among teens, a similar phenomenon is occurring for adults as well.
The rise in overdose deaths has shown the need for education and prevention measures. As mentioned previously, overdoses from synthetic opioids are at an all-time, partially due to the increased popularity of fentanyl. The potency of opioids on the market has been a factor in higher rates of drug-related overdoses and deaths.
Public health agencies everywhere are pushing resources out to medical providers and the community, with the aim of mitigating overdoses from synthetic opioids.
Through spreading awareness, education, and tools to members of the community, public health officials hope to effectively address the current opioid epidemic.
Strategic Priorities to Address the Opioid Crisis 6
One of the most common tools for preventing overdose-related deaths is through the use of the medication, Naloxone. Naloxone is a medication that works within the body to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.
The development of Naloxone has been instrumental in reversing overdoses in individuals with opioids in their systems, working to reverse an overdose if administered in time.7 This medication is becoming increasingly available; officials and first responders are trained to carry and administer Naloxone – in some cases, the medication can be retrieved from the pharmacy without a prescription. In addition, more community-based distribution programs are popping up across the county – working with local health authorities to supply Naloxone to those who need it.7
Additionally, educating medical providers and opioid users on the potentially life-saving benefits of harm reduction can have a positive impact on the rate of drug overdoses. By utilizing new testing techniques, which test illegal pills or drugs for traces of fentanyl – individuals can make the choice of what they are ingesting. This method of testing could cut down the number of accidental overdoses due to fentanyl-laced drugs.
Overall, awareness is key in preventing opioid-related overdoses in our communities. Early intervention for those at high-risk can prevent the escalation of use and ultimately save lives. Additionally, expanding awareness and treatment options for individuals struggling can provide those using fentanyl or other opioids with the tools they need for recovery.3 For long-term prevention and assistance, awareness and treatment tools seem to be the best option. However, for preventing a devastating overdose immediately, harm reduction measures such as Naloxone have been proven to save lives.
What to Do If You or a Loved One is in Trouble
If you or a loved one is showing potential signs of opioid dependence or addiction, it is important to take action. For those living with chronic pain, it may seem as though there is no alternative to pain management than prescription opioids. As devastating as chronic pain can be, there is hope in alternatives for pain management. Discussing alternatives for pain management with a medical professional can be a good place to start – some recommended options even prove to be more effective in treating pain than opioids.8
Alternative Pain-Management Options 8
Early intervention can be key in terms of helping yourself or a loved one. In addition, seeking treatment opportunities that are appropriate for your specific needs can start the journey toward long-term recovery. If you have concerns about the medications prescribed to you by your doctor, it is important to have an honest conversation about your concerns and experience taking the medication. Take time to review the potential risks of what medications your medical provider is offering to prescribe.
Having an open conversation about concerns can lead to tangible solutions in terms of pain management and your own mental or behavioral health. Also, be sure to research what the medical prescribing guidelines are for your needs and the medication that your doctor is prescribing. If you feel uncomfortable with your medical provider’s suggestion, you have options.9
In situations where opioid use has progressed to addiction or use of non-prescription opioids, it may be time for you or your loved one to seek treatment options. Again, starting a conversation with a medical professional or treatment provider will be a good first step toward receiving support. Individuals may look at the numbers of opioid misuse and overdoses and feel discouraged about recovery. However, there is hope – the key is reaching out and finding the right treatment plan for your needs.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). What is the U.S. opioid epidemic?. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Overdose death rates. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Opioids. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/basics/prescribed.html
- Los Angeles County Public Health. (n.d.). Fentanyl. Retrieved from http://www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/sapc/managepainsafely/docs/Fentanyl%20FINAL.pdf?pdf=fentanyl
- Chayyerjee, R. (April 2022). Teen drug overdose deaths rose sharply in 2020, driven by fentanyl-laced pills. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/04/12/1092309418/teen-drug-overdose-deaths-rose-sharply-in-2020-driven-by-fentanyl-laced-pills
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). CDC’s efforts to prevent overdose and substance use-related harms 2022-2024. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/prevention/index.html
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Naloxone DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/naloxone
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Opioids: Know your options. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/patients/options.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Opioids: Information for patients. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/opioids/patients/faq.html