Prescription narcotics have been essential to improving the quality of life for those living with pain, but sometimes at a high cost. Since the 1990s, deaths related to opioids have quadrupled, resulting in a serious public health epidemic and the deadliest drug crisis in US history.
In 2015, roughly 33,0000 deaths were related to opioids, averaging around 100 deaths a day. Sales of prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1991, even though studies have shown that reports of chronic and acute pain have remained steady. As bad as that sounds, it is getting worse—STAT News estimated that opiates could cause as many as 650,000 deaths over the next decade.
Opioids are still incredibly helpful for many Americans, but it’s important to keep yourself informed and know how to get help if you need it. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some resources that can help you and your loved ones stay safe.
First, what are opioids?
An opioid is a type of drug that helps treat pain. The majority of medications that fall under this category are available with a doctor’s prescription, but some—like heroin—are not prescribed by a doctor and are considered illegal street drugs.
Some of the most commonly prescribed opioids include Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen), Dilaudid (hydromorphone), OxyContin (oxycodone ER), and Duragesic (fentanyl) among many others. They can come in many forms, like a pill, liquid, wafer, or even a patch.
In the US, most are considered “schedule II” drugs by the DEA, which means there are restrictions on how they can be prescribed and filled at the pharmacy.
Opioids affect the brain and can increase pleasant feelings in addition to offering pain relief. It is this feeling of euphoria that leads to abuse, addiction or overdose.
How do you treat an overdose?
First, know what to look for. Symptoms of an overdose include respiratory failure, slow breathing, small pupils, and loss of consciousness or vomiting.
Someone experiencing an opioid overdose needs immediate medical attention. If you believe you or someone else is showing signs of an overdose, call 911 immediately.
I take an opioid prescription—how can I avoid an overdose?
First, follow the instructions for use—use your medication as prescribed, don’t mix with alcohol, and talk to your doctor about any other medications you may be taking. Overdoses are more likely if you mix your opioid prescription with alcohol or a sedative-hypnotic drug (Valium or Ativan are common examples). However, many overdoses are simply a result of taking too much, by accident or abuse.
If you take an opioid for severe, chronic pain, you may also be prescribed naloxone or Narcan, which can temporarily reverse the dangerous effects of opiates. These drugs are administered in two ways, intramuscularly—a shot into the thigh or buttock—or through a nasal spray device. With basic training, even non-medical professionals like family or concerned bystanders can give these life-saving drugs. For more information on safely administering naloxone or Narcan, read the opioid overdose toolkit here.
If you take Vicodin, Percocet, or other drugs that combine an opioid with acetaminophen (Tylenol), you should also be aware of the danger of an acetaminophen overdose. It’s especially important not to combine your prescription pain medication with over-the-counter Tylenol or cold medications—you can take a dangerous dose of acetaminophen quickly without knowing it.
How can I avoid abuse?
No one is recommending that doctors withhold pain medications from patients undergoing a medical procedure, or experiencing severe pain. You should know though that even when opioids are appropriately prescribed—and you take them as prescribed—it’s still possible to become dependent. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 people who are prescribed an opioid for pain struggle with addiction.
There are a couple steps you can take to help avoid the slippery slope:
- Follow the dosage directions on the label, and take your medication as prescribed by your doctor.
- Have a friend or family member track your medication and help you through the recovery process.
- Get rid of your leftover pills if they’re no longer needed. Be sure to follow the FDA’s guidelines on proper disposal of unused medications.
What are the warning signs of opioid addiction?
Becoming addicted to an opiate is not a conscious decision. Opiates are both physically and psychologically addictive—they stimulate parts of the brain tied with reward.
There are some warning signs you can watch out for:
- Taking the medication longer than prescribed.
- Taking opiates for the euphoric high. Be aware if you begin taking your opiate not to ease pain, but only for the euphoric feeling.
- Stealing drugs or supplies.
- Improper administration—for instance, grinding and snorting your medication rather than swallowing whole as prescribed.
- Developing a drug tolerance where you need more opioids to achieve the desired effect.
- Memory problems.
How is opioid addiction treated?
- Detoxification is the first step in treating opioid addiction, but be aware that withdrawal from opiates is dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Many people require a supervised detox to manage the symptoms from withdrawal.
- Rehabilitation centers (yes, rehab) are the most common way of treating opioid addiction. These centers typically guide patients through detox, create an environment that supports sobriety, and teach healthy behaviors. Some insurance plans cover drug rehabilitation, but coverage differs in each state, so be sure to check with your provider. Many states also offer substance abuse services, which is usually the most cost effective option. You can see the directory for state-funded facilities here.
- Medication-assisted therapy is another common way that specialists are treating dependency. Medications like methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine can help prevent relapse, and help people overcome an addiction without the symptoms of withdrawal. These medications work differently and have different side-effects, so your doctor will create a personalized plan for you. Keep in mind that medication-assisted treatment alone may not be enough to prevent relapse, and doctors typically recommend a combination of medication and behavioral therapy.
I think I (or a loved one) may need help—what can I do?
Remember, recovery is possible! Here are some resources to help you or your loved one:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline. 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD — for hearing impaired). This hotline can provide free and confidential information for individuals and family members facing substance abuse and mental health issues. You can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Opioid treatment program directory. A list of opioid treatment programs in each state.
- Behavioral health treatment locator. An anonymous source of information regarding behavioral health treatment facilities.
- Buprenorphine treatment practitioner locator. A source to locate physicians authorized to treat opioid dependence with buprenorphine.
- Overdose Prevention Toolkit. A guide to opioid use, overdose, recovery, and facts for community members.
- Partnership for drug-free kids. A non-profit supporting families struggling with a child’s substance use. You can call the helpline at 1-855-378-4373, live chat, or email them for more information, resources or help.
- Directory of Single State Agencies for Substance Abuse Services. A directory of state-funded drug treatment facilities.
The information on this website is not intended to be fully systematic or complete, nor does inclusion here imply any endorsement or recommendation by GoodRx. We make no warranties, express or implied, about the value or utility for any purpose of the information and resources contained herein.