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Opioid Addiction: Understanding the Epidemic

September 13, 2017


Opioid Addiction: Understanding the Epidemic

The data from Overdose Free PA is sobering. In Franklin County in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 39 deaths attributed to overdoses--an average of more than three overdose deaths each month. The top three drugs responsible for the deaths were heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone--all part of the opioid family.

There are a lot of misperceptions surrounding the opioid addiction occurring daily across the United States, specifically regarding the type of person struggling with the disease.

But addiction isn't just happening to families living at the poverty line; it's occurring within the middle and upper classes, as well. Addiction is
happening behind white picket fences, most often to people 25-34, people who should be at the peak of their lives. The overuse and abuse of opioids is a national health crisis of epidemic proportions that does not discriminate.

What are opioids?

Opioids are drugs that interfere with the signals that cause the brain to recognize pain, reducing a person's perception of pain. In some people, opioids also activate areas of the brain that produce pleasure and create euphoria, or the feeling of being "high," which fuels addiction.

Codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl are opioids commonly prescribed to relieve pain. Opium and heroin are also opioids and some people who become addicted to prescription pain medications begin using heroin because it is easier to acquire. In 2015 in Pennsylvania, 10 people died each day from drug poisoning stemming from prescription opioids and/or heroin use.

Nationwide, 91 people die each day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Although the data is frightening, it is possible to use opioids safely without developing substance abuse problems, as long as you carefully follow the dosage directions and contact your provider if you suspect you could become addicted.

People are more likely to become addicted to opioids if they take high doses for long periods. Over time, the body can develop a tolerance to the medication, causing the person to need a higher dose to experience the same level of pain relief. The body also can develop a physical dependence on the medication, which causes withdrawal symptoms (like nausea, shaking, and chills) if the person stops taking it.

Someone with an addiction can't function properly without the drug in his or her system, which is why patients who have an addiction continue using opioids after their health-care provider has told them to discontinue use.

Is addiction a disease?

Opioid addiction isn't a sign of weakness, it's a brain disease. Millions of Americans from all walks of life are affected.

If you think you or someone you care about may have an addiction to opioids, seek medical help. Most people wouldn't hesitate to see a doctor to receive treatment for diabetes or high blood pressure. Just like those conditions, addiction is a disease.

Help reduce the prevalence of opioid addiction

  • Ask your health-care provider about non-opioid options to manage pain.
  • Lock up all medications at all times and safely dispose of any leftover medicine.
  • Cooperate when you may be asked by a provider or pharmacist to sign a controlled-substance agreement, and be willing to participate in urine drug screens and pill counts.
  • Tell your provider or pharmacist if you have any problems, especially if you are concerned about misuse of your medication.

Symptoms to watch for

Symptoms of opioid use disorders include:

  • Strong desire for opioids
  • Inability to control or reduce use
  • Continued use despite interference with work, school, family obligations, and social functioning
  • Use of larger amounts over time
  • Development of tolerance
  • Spending a great deal of time to obtain and use opioids
  • Withdrawal symptoms that occur after stopping or reducing use, such as negative mood, nausea or vomiting, muscle aches, diarrhea, fever, and insomnia


Help and resources are available. For more information, visit: