According to two new reports, there appears to be a significant rise in the illicit use of prescription drugs. Instead of taking these medications for their intended usage, the studies report that people are abusing drugs more these days, causing a rise in the amount of deaths due to this problem.
Across the U.S., an epidemic has been happening — people have been abusing prescription drugs in ever increasing numbers. According to one of the new reports, analyzing trends in drug poisoning deaths has helped explain why this is going on. The epidemic has been on the rise since the 1990s, but only now are researchers starting to find answers as to what is happening to create the rising numbers.
Comparing statistics, in 2006, 16,000 individuals in the U.S. alone died due to a drug overdose. Most of these were caused by the drug class known as “opioids” (oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, and fentanyl are examples), which includes many prescription drugs, as well as heroin and cocaine. In prescription form, opioids are commonly prescribed by doctors to help patients with their pain. However, if this drug is abused, it can lead to death.
The opioid family is a major contributor to deaths due to drug abuse, be it in pharmaceutical or illicit form. Opioids are basically pain-management drugs. They contain either natural or synthetic chemicals, which are based on morphine (a highly addictive drug).
Opioids work by mimicking the pain-relieving chemicals that your body naturally produces. They are effective and several studies have shown that when opioid analgesic drugs are used correctly, they are safe and do not cause addiction.
It is when opioids are used illicitly — be they pharmaceutical or illegal — that severe addiction and even death become risk factors for users. In fact, between 1999 and 2002, the amount of drug overdoses due to opioids surpassed that of both cocaine and heroin. Combine this startling finding with the fact that it was recently noted in a government report that 2.4 million Americans have taken up using narcotic painkillers for non-medical purposes (more than even the old suspects marijuana and cocaine) and we are looking at a scary trend that is pushing higher.
The report, entitled “Nonmedical users of Pain Relievers: Characteristics of Recent Initiates,” was published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety. It pointed out that a startling of the 2.4 million people already mentioned, 2.1 started using marijuana and one million used cocaine in the 12 months prior to the start of the study. Interestingly, half of the people who illicitly started taking medications intended for pain were women, in 2004.
On top of this, deaths from the increased abuse of these drugs are also accelerating. For example, between 1979 and 1990, the amount of deaths that were reportedly due to drug overdose came in at 5.3%.
Fast forward to between 1990 and 2002, and that number was sitting at 18.1%. Opioids are being fingered as contributors to the epidemic, with the number of overdose deaths between 1999 and 2002 stated on death certificates as being due to the drug class went up by a staggering 91.2%. While heroin and cocaine deaths also went up, the numbers sat at 12.4% and 22.8% respectively.
More research is needed into this phenomenon — and more awareness. The next time you receive a prescription for a drug that comes from the opioid family (or any pharmaceutical drug, for that matter), become an active participant in the process. Ask questions, assess risks, and research the drug thoroughly before you take it. Cover all the possible angles and you may prevent an unwanted addiction and save your own life as a result