Prescription Opioid Abuse: Understanding the Epidemic

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Prescription opioids, which include well-known drugs such as Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin, can provide safe and effective pain relief when taken as prescribed.

However, the potential for abuse and dependence is high, and non-medical use of these drugs has reached epidemic proportions. The number of deaths related to prescription opioids has been rising, and the problem has been labeled a major health concern in the United States.

Have these powerful painkillers become a prescription for addiction? In this post we’ll take a closer look at the prescription opioid epidemic and discuss the signs and symptoms of a problem with these drugs.

Prescription Opioids and Addiction

Non-medical use of prescription painkillers was on the decline from 2003 to 2013; however, the prevalence of addiction and the number of deaths related to prescription opioids increased during this time. Each day, an average of 44 people in the United States die from an overdose of these drugs.

Prescription opioids can be dangerous when misused on their own, but prescription opioid users often transition to heroin, a more potent and dangerous opioid drug. Studies show that people with a prescription painkiller addiction are 40 times more likely to develop a heroin addiction.

Who Is Affected?

Anyone can become addicted to prescription opioids, but research has shown that the rate of abuse differs somewhat among demographic groups. Substance use disorders involving prescription opioids were most widespread among non-Hispanic white individuals, but the heaviest users of these drugs were non-Hispanic black individuals.

Prescription painkiller abuse was more common among people who were disabled and could not work, who suffered from depression and who lacked health insurance. People who had struggled with addiction to another substance were also found to be more likely to abuse prescription opioids.

Recognizing the Signs

It’s easier to address a prescription drug addiction if it’s caught in the early stages, so it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of abuse. The indicators for prescription drug abuse can vary from person to person, but certain telltale signs are likely to reveal a problem.

A few hallmark signs of abuse include:

  • Taking a higher dose of the drug than prescribed
  • Forging or stealing a prescription
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors
  • “Losing” prescriptions so that new ones must be written
  • Appearing to be unusually revved-up

Certain physical symptoms also may indicate a problem with prescription painkillers. These symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness or confusion
  • Nausea
  • Slowed breathing rate
  • Constricted pupils
  • Poor coordination

Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem in the United States; despite more stringent prescribing practices and increased government regulation, the rate of addiction and mortality continues to rise.

Not everyone who misuses prescription opioids will develop an addiction, but the risk of dependence is real. If prescription painkillers are controlling your life, it’s important to know that help is available.

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