According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, meaning there are about 33,000 opioid deaths a year. According to HHS, drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury deaths in the United States and the majority of drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. The increase in opioid-involved deaths has led to the term “opioid epidemic.” An epidemic, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary is “characterized by very widespread growth or extent” and is “excessively prevalent.”

What is an opioid?

Opioids are pain relievers that produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Some opioids involved in the opioid epidemic are illegal, such as heroin. Other drugs involved in the opioid epidemic are available legally by prescription, such as

  • OxyContin (oxycodone)
  • Vicodin (hydrocodone)
  • codeine
  • morphine
  • methadone
  • fentanyl and many others

Opioids may be prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain resulting from surgery, injury, or cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In recent years, doctors have may have contributed to the opioid epidemic by increasingly prescribing opioids for chronic pain such as back pain or osteoarthritis, despite the serious risks according to TIME Magazine and the CDC.

How is the opioid epidemic dangerous?

According to the CDC, an opioid overdose can stop a person’s breathing, leading to death. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, call 911 if you know your loved is taking an opioid and he is:

  • limp
  • extremely pale or clammy
  • has purple or blue fingernails
  • is vomiting or making gurgling noises
  • cannot be awakened or can’t speak
  • Has stopped breathing or has a slowed or stopped heartbeat

When given right away, the drug naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose, and possibly prevent another death in the opioid epidemic, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

How can my loved one safely take an opioid and avoid the opioid epidemic?

Opioids may affect older people differently than they affect younger people. Changes in the elderly, such as changes in body composition, cause drugs used in the elderly to be more potent and have a longer duration of action according to a study titled “Opiates and Elderly: Use and side effects” in the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

To avoid becoming a statistic in the opioid epidemic, your loved one should only take an opioid exactly as prescribed as doctor. It’s possible to take a correct dosage of an opioid in an incorrect way. For example, OxyContin should not be broken, chewed, or crushed, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Breaking, chewing, or crushing the OxyContin tablet eliminates the controlled delivery mechanism and results in a rapid release of the drug. This rapid release could result in a potentially fatal overdose.

According to the CDC, risk factors for an opioid overdose are overlapping prescriptions from multiple providers and pharmacies and high daily dosages. If this is true for your loved one, try to help monitor your loved one’s daily opioid intake.

Keep in mind that opioids are generally safe when taken for a short time, but with regular use can result in dependence, according to the National Institute on Drug
Abuse. Anyone who takes a prescription opioid can become addicted to them, according to the CDC. As many as 25% of patients who take opioids long-term struggle with opioid addiction. According to the CDC, there is lack of evidence about the long-term effectiveness of opioids.

Do you have more questions about the opioid epidemic and Medicare?

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