International Overdose Awareness Day occurs every year on August 31st, serving as a stark reminder of the devastation of the opioid crisis. In the past few years, overdose deaths have increased dramatically. In the United States, more than 100,000 people die as the result of an overdose each year. That’s more than double the number of annual overdose fatalities from just ten years ago. And even more concerning, the rate of overdose deaths shows no sign of abating.
The Increasing Toll of Opioid Addiction
The vast majority of overdose deaths are attributed to opioids. Opioids include illicit substances like heroin as well as prescription narcotics like morphine and oxycodone. In recent years, fentanyl has caused a substantial share of opioid overdoses. Fentanyl is sometimes prescribed or used in hospital settings, but it is also made illegally and sold on the street. Fentanyl poses serious dangers because it can be deadly in seemingly miniscule doses.
Because of the effect opioids have on the central nervous system, opioid use often leads to physical and psychological dependence. When someone with opioid use disorder (OUD) attempts to stop using, they experience painful withdrawal symptoms. These can include anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, muscle aches, and other flu-like symptoms.
When people use opioids consistently, their tolerance to the substance also increases. They will have to take larger doses and use more direct administration methods to achieve the euphoric effect they seek. This is why many people with OUD eventually turn to intravenous use.
Why do Opioids Cause So Many Overdoses?
Another part of the body impacted by opioids is the respiratory system. The respiratory system is responsible for breathing, ensuring that sufficient amounts of oxygen are introduced to the blood stream, keeping the brain, muscles, organs, and other crucial body systems functioning.
When someone ingests an opioid, it depresses the respiratory system. This is especially pronounced when the dose is large or is administered via injection. Soon after, the person can become tired, and their breathing can become slow and shallow. If they took an overdose, these effects will be more dramatic. They may fall unconscious and stop breathing entirely. If no medical intervention occurs, the event can turn fatal.
Because of the social and legal implications of substance use, substances are often ingested behind closed doors. When people overdose in private, it can be difficult for someone to find them and intervene quickly enough to save them. Likewise, in cases when someone is present at the scene of an overdose, they may be hesitant to call 911, fearing legal repercussions.
How Overdoses can be Prevented
The harrowing number of overdoses occurring in the United States can be a dismal thing to consider. But there are proven, life-saving methods for treating and preventing overdoses. Here are some of the resources that can be used to stop an overdose or keep one from occurring:
- Naloxone – Sold under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is a medication that is administered to revive someone from an overdose. It can be injected or inhaled and is available for over-the-counter purchase. It’s an extremely valuable medication to have on hand, especially for those who use opioids, or are close to or live with someone who uses opioids.
- Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD) – Unlike naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioids, MOUD treats the individual’s physical opioid dependency. Substances like methadone and buprenorphine fall into this category and are administered in regular doses to prevent cravings and lower the risk of relapse. Studies have found that opioid-dependent people who receive MOUD are much less likely to suffer a relapse.
- Fentanyl Test Strips – Because fentanyl is often covertly added to other substances and can be deadly in such small doses, many fentanyl overdoses are accidental, with the victim having ingested it unknowingly. Recently made legal in many states, fentanyl test strips can help prevent such occurrences. These strips can be used to test a substance for fentanyl, allowing the individual to make an informed decision, and preventing accidental overdose.
While overdoses continue at an alarming rate, our hope is to help prevent further tragedy. With innovative new service methods like our Mobile Treatment Unit, Spectrum Health Systems works to help more people find recovery.
By fostering an environment of openness and understanding, eliminating barriers to treatment, and meeting people where they are with life-saving medication, we can fight back against the overdose epidemic.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction or a substance use disorder, call Spectrum Health Systems today at 1-877-MyRehab.