The Opioid Crisis: What It Is, How to Recognize Signs

Chances are you’ve heard the term “opioid crisis,” since it’s become a hot button issue in the media in recent years. The opioid crisis refers to the rapidly increasing number of deaths and hospitalizations from opioid medications, which includes highly addictive prescriptions as well as illegal drugs. Opioids you may have heard of include codeine, Demerol, fentanyl, heroin, oxycodone and tramadol.

The opioid crisis is a problem that affects all Americans, either directly or indirectly. Millions misuse opioids or have a family member who is doing so. The rest are affected indirectly in numerous ways, such as financially.

To better understand the impact, consider this: the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone in the U.S. is $78.5 billion each year. This includes things like the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, treatment for addiction and services related to criminal justice. (Source: National Institute of Health) Employees prescribed even one opioid pill were found to cost four time more in workers’ comp claims than those who weren’t prescribed any opioids. Meanwhile, missed workdays and lost productivity due to the abuse of prescription painkillers cost employers an estimated $25.6 billion a year.

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How Did This Happen?

In recent years, death rates due to opioids have skyrocketed across the U.S. In 2018, opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths, which equaled 69.5% of all drug overdose deaths. The number of people dying in the U.S. due to accidental opioid overdose far exceeds every other drug combined. (Source: CDC)

Opioid-related problems first began surfacing in the late 1990s, at the same time pharmaceutical companies started to heavily promote opioids as a less- or non-addictive pain-relieving solution in comparison to other options. Soon, they were being prescribed for all types of issues.

How Does Opioid Addiction Begin?

Many people who become addicted to opioids do so after first receiving a prescription. It is only after their prescription runs out that they realize they need the drug simply to function “normally.”

When this happens, they are faced with two choices: quit and go through painful withdrawal symptoms or find more opioids. And since the patient may not be able to get their prescription refilled and because prescriptions can be expensive, many turn to illegal drugs, especially heroin, which is cheaper, easy to obtain and provides the effects they are looking for. Tragically, four out of five new heroin users started out by misusing prescription painkillers. (Source: American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Know the Warning Signs

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of opioid abuse:

  • Borrowing medications or “losing” them so more prescriptions are needed
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Drowsiness, lack of energy
  • Excessive or intense mood swings
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Increased secrecy
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Stealing items and/or financial problems
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and social events

If you believe a family member may be in an altered state from an opioid, look for these common signs:

  • Clumsiness, confusion and/or poor coordination
  • Constricted, “pinpoint” pupils
  • Falling asleep at inappropriate time, such as while sitting or standing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Reddened or itchy skin
  • Slowed breathing

If you are concerned about a friend or family member, contact a trusted medical professional for guidance and addiction resources.