5 Scary Facts You Didn’t Know About Prescription Opioid Painkillers

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An opioid epidemic has swept the nation. Every day in America, approximately 50 people die from overdosing on prescription painkillers. Over the course of a year, that number grows to 18,250—which is enough to fill every seat at Madison Square Garden. What is even more alarming is that the number of deaths from overdose continues to climb steadily year after year.

In an effort to address this major public health issue, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) recently issued a set of guidelines for physicians on how to prescribe painkillers. Given the CDC’s prominent role in healthcare, these new recommendations may help to curb current trends in overdose.

Want to take a deeper dive into the highly addictive world of prescription opioid painkillers? Here are 5 surprising facts about the drugs that are being manufactured, prescribed, and abused in our own backyard.

1. Abuse of opioid painkillers often leads to heroin abuse.

According to a recent survey, 3 out of 4 heroin addicts reported that they were introduced to opioids through prescription painkillers. Statistics like these are alarming to say the least because heroin is a dangerous drug. Deaths from heroin have tripled since 2010, and when compared to cocaine, heroin takes twice the number of lives per year from overdose.

People often turn to heroin when painkillers become too expensive or too difficult to get from a doctor. Heroin is easier to get, it’s cheap, and it produces a similar high. Risk of heroin overdose is especially dangerous because the drug is often laced with fentanyl, which can be deadly even in small doses.

2. The southeast region of the U.S. has the highest rate of opioid painkiller prescriptions and overdose.

In the 80s and 90s, pharmaceutical companies heavily marketed opioid painkillers, like Oxycodone, to coal miners and blue-collar workers in areas of Appalachia.

In the 2000s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) cracked down on “pill mills” that had sprung up in the area, making it harder for people to obtain their regular painkiller prescriptions. Meanwhile, in Florida the laws were far less strict. To fill the demand, two brothers started a multi-million-dollar operation selling prescription opioids on the black market. Addicts and dealers were traveling down to Florida on the ‘Oxy Express’ to get pills. This mass production led to a spillover of opioid painkillers into neighboring states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Alabama.

States in the southeast continue to rank highest for painkiller prescriptions written per capita, with West Virginia ranking highest in terms of death due to drug overdose.

3. The problem is exploding outside of metropolitan areas.

Historically, drug use has been concentrated in urban areas. Rural areas of the U.S. are now pulling ahead with the highest rates of prescription painkiller overdose in the country. Among rural teens, opioid abuse is becoming more and more common. In 2014, 8.6% of rural teens reported ever abusing painkillers compared to 6.5% of teens living in cities. What’s troublesome about these high numbers is that rural teens think substance abuse is less risky than their urban peers. Rural teens are also more likely to drink heavily and mix substances than urban teens.

Research finds that when people use painkillers before the age of 18, they are more likely to develop addictions in adulthood. From a public health standpoint this could mean that millions of teens will transition into adulthood with a higher likelihood of becoming addicted to opioids.

4. The price tag is hefty.

As a nation, we lose billions of dollars every year due to opioid abuse and the results of overdose. In 2007, it was estimated that prescription opioid abuse cost the U.S. an estimated 55 billion dollars in premature death, healthcare costs, and criminal justice costs. People who abuse opioid painkillers generally tend to use medical services, such as the emergency department, more than non-users. One review found that individuals with an opioid abuse problem generated an additional 5 to 15 thousand dollars more in health care costs per year than the average American.

5. More women are dying from painkiller overdose than ever before.

The relationship between women and painkillers is a devastating one. While men are more likely to die from a prescription painkiller overdose, the percentage increase in deaths from painkiller overdoses increased more than 400% among women, compared to just 265% among men. Reasons for the increase may be related to the fact that women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers, be given higher doses, and use the drugs longer-term. These statistics are haunting when you consider the potential impact painkiller abuse has on pregnant women and their newborns.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is a condition that affects infants born to mothers with dependence to opioids. NAS is serious—children can be born with birth defects and developmental problems. Every 25 minutes a baby is born with NAS and is suffering an opioid withdrawal. NAS costs the health care system an annual $1.5 billion dollars, 81% of which is paid by state Medicaid programs.

It is clear that prescription painkillers have the potential to be very dangerous.

The majority of people do not get painkillers from a doctor—increasing the risk for misuse. One study found that 60% of people using opioid prescription painkillers got the drugs for free from a friend or relative. As a society, we need to take action to reduce the prevalence of dependency, tolerance, and addiction before it’s too late.

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    Lauren worked as a Web Content Writer at Recovery Brands. Before working at Recovery Brand, she served as the Program Director for a community-based HIV/AIDS and cancer non-profit in San Francisco.

    Lauren holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.