The Heroin and Opioid Epidemic
At this point, it would be almost impossible not to have heard at least passing news reports about the heroin and opioid epidemic that’s gripped the U.S.
Heroin and opioids have wreaked havoc on so many families and communities throughout the country, from inner cities to suburbs and rural areas.
Much of the opioid epidemic is fueled by the use of prescription drugs, but also illicit street drugs like heroin.
So how do heroin and opioids work? What makes them so addictive, and what are the important facts to know about the heroin and opioid epidemic?
When heroin and opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, it causes a rush of dopamine, which is why some people experience a euphoric high when they take these drugs. That rush of dopamine activates certain parts of the brain, including the reward pathways. When the reward pathways are activated through the use of artificially stimulated dopamine, it begins a cycle of drug addiction. This is because the brain is wired to want to repeatedly seek out stimuli that bring pleasure, and in this instance that stimulus is drugs.
With heroin and opioids, it’s also often a relatively short period of time before people start to develop a tolerance. This means their brain and body become used to the presence of heroin and opioids, so they need higher doses in order to feel the same effects. In many people who are long-term users of heroin and opioids, they no longer even feel a euphoric high when taking them, but are addicted and physically dependent.
Tolerance relates to another concept that’s important to understand with the heroin and opioid epidemic, and that’s the risk of overdose. The heroin and opioid epidemic is not only damaging at a social level because of the impact heroin and opioids have on lives, families, and careers, but there are also countless deaths occurring because of overdoses.
With heroin and opioids, an overdose occurs because these drugs depress the central nervous system. The central nervous system controls vital functions necessary to sustain life including respiration. When someone overdoses on heroin or other opioids, their central nervous system is depressed to the point where they stop breathing.
- More than 90 people die in the U.S. each day from an opioid overdose
- The economic burden is predicted to be more than $78 billion annually in the U.S. due to healthcare, addiction treatment, criminal justice involvement and other related costs
- The CDC and the government place much of the blame for the opioid epidemic on prescription painkiller manufacturers, citing the fact that in the late 1990s these companies told the medical community patients wouldn’t become addicted to these drugs and it became common for them to be prescribed.
- Before it was even realized what was happening on a widespread level, there was abuse of prescription opioids because of how addictive they turned out to be
- In 2015 there were more than 33,000 U.S. deaths attributed to heroin and opioids as well as fentanyl, which is an illegally manufactured opioid that’s incredibly potent
- The heroin and opioid epidemic is now believed to include more around two million people in the U.S. alone who have substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers
- It’s estimated that anywhere from 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed prescription opioids abuse them, and of those anywhere from 8 to 12 percent develop a substance abuse problem
- Around 4 to 6 percent of people who abuse prescription opioids are believed to then move on to heroin
- 80 percent of people who use heroin started with prescription painkillers
- Because of the prevalence of people using heroin and opioids, it has become one of the most pressing public health issues in America, and along with opioid abuse and overdoses and deaths, there’s been increasing focus on the issue of infants born addicted to opioids because their mother used these drugs while pregnant
- The heroin and opioid epidemic has also led to an increase in infectious diseases like hepatitis C and aids because of the sharing of unclean needles
Politicians, health professionals, and others are looking at ways to curb the heroin and opioid epidemic in the U.S. by improving people’s access to recovery services, pushing for more use of opioid overdose reversal drugs like Narcan, and working on research on substance use disorder.
Unfortunately, even with the attention being put on the heroin and opioid epidemic, and the work being done by so many individuals and organizations, it remains an uphill battle. The use of heroin and opioids transcends demographics, socioeconomic levels, and locations and it continues to plague people at the individual, family and community level.
Have more questions about Heroin abuse?Read the most frequently asked questions
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