Understanding the Drug Overdose Epidemic

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are fueling yet another rise in drug overdose deaths in the U.S. This potent opioid is involved in the majority of overdose deaths today. Other substances, like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine are also major contributors in the overdose epidemic, but when combined with fentanyl, the result is often fatal. Awareness of the epidemic and its underpinnings is so important for preventing more deaths. Addiction treatment is effective and can protect more vulnerable people from overdosing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdoses continue to rise.

The number of deaths caused by drug overdose in the U.S. quadrupled from 1999 to 2019. The number increased again in 2020. What fuels this ongoing epidemic?

As the world recognizes International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31, it’s essential to understand how drugs are killing people in record numbers.

Awareness and understanding are crucial for preventing more deaths and turning the statistics around.

The Facts About Drug Overdoses

The CDC collects information about drug overdose fatalities for most drugs and drug categories. The data show that the rise in deaths continues to increase. These are a few of the crucial facts regarding the overdose epidemic in the U.S.:

  • Overdose deaths increased by 5% from 2018 to 2019 and by 31% from 2019 to 2020.
  • 91,799 people died from a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2020.
  • Three-quarters of overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid, such as a prescription narcotic or heroin.
  • Overdoses involving stimulants like methamphetamine are on the rise.
  • More men die from drug overdoses than women.
  • Only 12 states have stable overdose death rates.
  • Opioid overdose rates are highest among people between the ages of 25 and 34.
  • The CDC predicts that overdose deaths will continue to rise in 2022. The prediction is an increase of nearly 10%.
  • According to the United Nations, the U.S. has the highest mortality rate related to drugs in the world. One-quarter of overdose deaths in the world occur here.

What is Fueling the Rise in Overdoses?

Using the CDC statistics, experts see three different time periods of significant increases in overdose deaths since 1999:

  • Beginning in the 1990s, prescriptions for opioid painkillers increased. Opioids are habit-forming. Many people became addicted to their prescriptions, while others abused illicit prescription opioids. This led to an increase in overdoses and deaths.
  • In response to the crisis, prescription opioids became more difficult to access. People turned to illegal heroin, an opioid that provides a similar high. Around 2010, overdose deaths related to heroin increased significantly.
  • Another big jump in deaths began in 2013 when overdoses increasingly involved synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.

Synthetic opioids are lab-made rather than substances natural to the opium poppy. The main synthetic opioid-involved in the majority of related overdoses is fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic and painkiller that is many times more potent than morphine and even heroin. Doctors typically only prescribe fentanyl for severe and breakthrough pain associated with terminal cancer.

CDC statistics point to fentanyl as the current leading cause of the rise of overdose deaths. When compared to other opioids, it is increasingly seen in overdose victims. Overdose deaths related to prescription opioids alone are actually decreasing. Those that include fentanyl are rising sharply. Deaths involving heroin with fentanyl are also rising but not as rapidly. Deaths from heroin alone are declining.

Struggling with Drug Addiction?

Recovery is Possible

Fentanyl addiction isn’t the main problem behind the epidemic. Opioid users don’t generally look for fentanyl. They primarily misuse narcotic pills or heroin. However, fentanyl keeps appearing as a component in overdose deaths.

The reason for this is that street drugs are often laced with fentanyl. When a drug user purchases heroin or opioid pills, they likely contain some amount of fentanyl or an analog. Analogs are compounds with very similar structures to fentanyl. They have similar effects but vary in potency. Carfentanil, for instance, is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

Because fentanyl and its analogs are so potent, they are more likely to cause overdose deaths than a legitimate prescription opioid pill or even pure heroin. Users purchase products without knowing exactly what is in them. Heroin from the street could contain some or a lot of fentanyl or carfentanil. The higher the fentanyl content, the greater the risk of overdose. Even seasoned drug users with a tolerance to opioids can easily overdose on these potent substances.

Know the Signs of an Overdose

With drug use and overdose rates so high, it’s likely that everyone knows someone who misuses substances and is, therefore, at risk of an overdose. Knowing the signs saves lives. The signs vary to some degree depending on the substance or combination, but in general, a drug overdose can cause:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty walking
  • Sleepiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Agitation and violence
  • Tremors or convulsions

As the biggest culprits, it’s also important to know the signs specific to an opioid overdose:

  • Breathing slows down or stops
  • Heart rate slows down
  • Drowsiness and floppy movements
  • Slurred speech and difficulty speaking
  • The person cannot be woken
  • They vomit or make gurgling noises
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Pale, clammy skin

What to Do if Someone Is Overdosing

An overdose does not have to result in death. If you act quickly, you can save a life. Call 911 immediately if you suspect someone is overdosing on any kind of drug. Check their breathing and pulse. If they are not breathing or you cannot find a pulse, begin CPR if you know how to do it.

If the individual used opioids, or you suspect they did, you can use the opioid overdose antidote. Called Narcan or naloxone, the antidote quickly reverses an overdose.

In most states, anyone can purchase and carry Narcan in case of an emergency. A Narcan nasal spray is available at pharmacies and does not require a prescription. All you have to do is spray it into someone’s nose. They do not have to inhale it for it to work.

If you know someone who uses opioids, carry Narcan. It could save their life one day. If it is not available without a prescription in your state, talk to your doctor about getting one.

Preventing Overdoses with Addiction Treatment

Narcan and emergency medical assistance should be last resort efforts to prevent a fatal overdose. If you or a loved one struggles with substance use, seek treatment. Addiction treatment is available, effective, and based on the latest evidence from addiction research.

A combination of therapy, medical care, individualized treatment, and social support can help individuals stop using drugs, even highly addictive opioids. Because the stakes are so high, it’s essential to approach treatment with serious commitment. Residential treatment is best for most people with severe addictions, especially to opioids.

Residential care gives people the chance to benefit from multiple addiction professionals, individualized treatment plans, and support from other patients. Additionally, it allows the patient to focus all their time and attention on healing. If you or someone you care about is struggling to stop using drugs, get help now and avoid becoming an overdose statistic.

To learn more about International Overdose Awareness Day, visit overdoseday.com. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we can help. Speak with one of our admissions specialists today to take your first step toward lasting recovery.