Why Do Opioids Carry Such a High Risk of Overdose?

The opioid epidemic has become a major health crisis in the United States. What started for many as medication for severe and chronic pain due to an accident, injury or surgery, can easily turn into fentanyl or heroin addiction and then, all too often, an overdose. Medical and legal experts have tried many things to intervene, from first responders carrying Narcan to reverse the effects of an overdose, to passing laws such as those that limit the production of prescription opioids. Yet, far too many people are still overdosing on opioids. Why do they carry such a high risk of overdose?

The Opioid Epidemic

Pharmaceutical companies misrepresented prescription opioids as non-addictive, and due to their high effectiveness of blocking pain, doctors began to prescribe them more. Fast forward over 20 years, in 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse almost 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses. 

They also report that 80% of heroin users first used prescription opioids. This demonstrates the dangers that even the most well-intentioned pain medications present. A patient with acute pain can seek relief with prescription medications and end up with a life-threatening heroin addiction. 

Opioids are Highly Addictive

Opioids will attach themselves to pain receptors in the brain, spinal cord and body effectively blocking pain. However, the longer they are used, the more of the drug is needed, and the more frequently it must be taken. This is how an opioid addiction occurs. A patient may start by taking their pain medications as directed, but over time, the pain creeps back sooner, requiring the patient to take the medication more frequently. 

In the case of illicit drugs, a person may take heroin or fentanyl initially for the high. The body then craves those sensations more frequently, even if the sensations lessen with each usage. Trying to get the same experience while also avoiding the withdrawal symptoms, the amount and frequency of the use of the opioid increases, creating an addiction.

From Prescription to Heroin and Fentanyl

Because opioids are very powerful, the positive and negative effects on the body are also very powerful. A patient that develops a tolerance for their pain medication will need more medication to try to produce the same level of pain relief. Because opioid painkillers are highly regulated, a patient may resort to acquiring more pain medications illegally. When that becomes difficult or is still not enough, heroin or fentanyl are sought out. The goal is always to relieve the pain, but fentanyl or heroin addiction becomes the reality. Worse still, using drugs without medical supervision can lead to an overdose.

Inconsistencies in Street Drugs

One of the big dangers of using illicit drugs is that a person doesn’t know exactly what they are taking. There may be other drugs besides the natural or synthetic opiates a person seeks, which can lead to further health complications. Additionally, many people end up using opioids with alcohol or other drugs, which creates even more health risks. Without a doctor to oversee the administration of a known dosage of opioids, the difference between achieving the desired effect and overdosing can be too close to measure – too close to risk. The inconsistencies of illicit drugs, as well as the use of other drugs concurrently, can create a recipe for disaster.

The Dangers of Opioid Relapse

Taking opioids after fentanyl or heroin treatment is especially dangerous. The body has adjusted to not having any opioids coming in. When people relapse, they often use the same amount that they had previously used, which can easily lead to an overdose. Additionally, those who are using medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for withdrawal treatment for opioids can result in dangerous or even deadly consequences if a patient relapses while doing MAT and taking opioids at the same time.

Why So Many Opioid Overdoses?

Opioids in high doses suppress normal breathing, to the point that a person can stop breathing altogether. There are emergency drugs such as Narcan, an inhalable version of Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose when administered in time. However, Narcan is not always available and many people are alone when they overdose. 

The very addictive nature of opioids puts a person at higher risk for overdose. Combined with how they work in the body, as well as the risks of using them without medical supervision or in conjunction with other substances, increases the likelihood of an overdose. Sadly, those who are in withdrawal treatment for opioids or who have received fentanyl or heroin treatment for an addiction are at incredibly high risk for an overdose, should they suffer an addiction relapse.

Opioids were once thought of as life-changing for those with chronic pain. Since the opioid epidemic, the concept of life-changing is different. Due to their highly addictive nature, as well as the possibility of using opioids unsupervised or with other substances, the risk of overdose becomes very high. DiscoveryMD can help you overcome your addiction to opioids before it is too late. We offer outpatient services for opioid addiction and more. Our flexibility allows you to meet other family and work obligations while you still access the treatment that you need. Our staff members understand addiction and are trained and experienced in helping you to take back control of your life. If you need help, contact us.

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