Drug overuse, abuse, and overdose are a growing and alarming problem within the United States. Startlingly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that opioid overdose deaths in particular, have quadrupled since 1999. The CDC estimates that 78 people die every day in the United States from opioid overdose. Over half of all opioid deaths involved a prescription opioid. Additionally, prescription opioid use and abuse is contributing to the rapid increase in both use of heroin and heroin overdose, even amongst groups not typically associated with illicit drug use.

What Are Opioids and What Do They Do?

Opioids, sometimes also preferred to as opiates or narcotics, are all the same family of derived chemicals that work on the same receptor areas in the brain. Opioids powerfully reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. Prescription forms commonly go by the names such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and morphine, methadone, and fentanyl. They help control moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed after an acute injury or surgery. They are also sometimes used to control severe pain due to cancer or for end-of-life care. Despite serious risks and lack of conclusive evidence, they have also been prescribed to control long-term pain from chronic conditions, other than cancer or end-of-life, such as low back pain.

In addition to their intended pain reduction, they can be addictive and have other side effects. Common side effects associated with use include increased tolerance creating the need for more or higher dosages, increased sensitivity to pain as well as physical dependence which causes withdrawal when medication is stopped. This can occur even after a relatively short duration. Other side effects that are less well-known, yet very debilitating or upsetting, include nausea or vomiting, sleepiness, dizziness, itching and sweating, low testosterone that can effect sex drive and energy, constipation, confusion, and depression. The mental side effects, coupled with withdrawal from stopping medication can create a further spiral into addiction.

Taking too many opioids or too great of a dose all at once can stop a person's breathing and cause death. Also, mixing opioid prescriptions with benzodiazepines (drugs that depress the central nervous system) or other drugs can have fatal consequences.

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