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What you need to know about opioids

What you need to know about opioids

Opioids include illicit drugs like heroin and licit prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl and others.

Opioids interact with the nervous system to relieve pain. Many users will experience extremely pleasurable effects from them, and risk addiction.

Of the 20.5 million Americans 12 years of age or older who had a substance use disorder in 2015, 2 million involve prescription pain relievers, and 25 percent of these people are also heroin addicts.

Drug overdose is currently the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. About two-thirds of these are from painkillers, and one-third are from heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in four patients prescribed opioids is currently addicted.

Most people obtain opioid-based prescriptions legitimately from a doctor when they experience moderate to severe pain. As more people have become addicted to opioids, prescriptions have become more difficult to acquire. In April 2017, drugstores nationwide were struggling to supply customers with even codeine-based cough syrup due to a national backorder.

Lack of legitimate medication has contributed to increased drug-seeking behaviors by those addicted to pain medications.

Heroin on the streets can be easier and cheaper to buy than prescription pain relievers, and it is often purer. This has led to a severe rise in heroin-related deaths in the U.S., which have tripled in the last six years!

In 2014 and 2015, drug deaths linked to fentanyl were particularly high. (Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine, but is 50 to 100 times more potent.)

The current epidemic didn't start in dark alleys on the "wrong side" of town, but in well-meaning doctors' offices. Originally, post-surgical patients or those undergoing cancer treatment were prescribed opioids to help manage moderate to severe pain, the CDC explains. Over time, physicians began writing prescriptions for long term use of these powerful medications for people with problems such as chronic arthritic pain — which contributed to the epidemic. New CDC prescribing guidelines now encourage doctors to prescribe pain medication short term, and to take precautions to prevent patients from abusing medication.

Be sure you understand the long-term effects of using opioids so you can avoid unwittingly getting addicted. Note: If you have a family history of drug/alcohol addiction, consider using a medical doctor who is certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine ( to manage pain medications if you require them.

Symptoms of addiction include developing tolerance and need for a stronger dose. Physical withdrawal may ensue when patients stop taking the drug. And some may also experience more sensitivity to pain than before they took opioids.

Risk factors for addiction include:
- History of mental illness or substance abuse.
- Living in a rural area (lack of nonmedical pain management alternatives makes prescription use more likely).
- A low income (illicit opioids may be cheaper, and therefore sought more readily. Additionally, some studies show lower income persons experience more pain-related health conditions).

Involve the entire family in learning about addictive disease to prevent enabling. Although addicts must learn to manage their continuing abstinence from opioids and psychoactive drugs (including alcohol) to improve their chances of survival, concerned loved ones without education risk behaving in ways that can provoke relapse.

- Discuss the long-term effects of opioid use with your doctor.
- Ask if other medications for pain are available that are less addictive — or ask about nonmedical pain management alternatives. (Not all doctors will initiate such discussions with you.)
- Always take prescription medication as it's prescribed. If you notice a reduced effect, phone your medical doctor. Do not take "just a little bit more."
- If a family member or friend appears addicted to a pain medication, do not enable him or her with money or by helping obtain prescriptions.

Does your employer offer an employee assistance program (EAP), like Continuum? If so, it is free and confidential. Use it to seek help for a variety of personal problems, including opioid addiction.

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