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Are Prescription Drugs Responsible for the Rising Tide of Heroin Addiction?

The Recovery VillageSubstance Abuse

Therapy for AddictionThe rates of heroin abuse have been pushing skyward in recent years, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This report also found that today’s heroin users are likely to abuse other drugs as well, including opiate painkillers and other substances. In fact, the strongest risk factor for a heroin abuse problem is a dependence upon opiate painkillers. NPR says that those who are addicted to prescription opiate medications (e.g., OxyContin, hydrocodone, morphine, etc.) are 40 times more likely to use and abuse heroin or to develop a heroin addiction.

According to the CDC report:

  • The biggest jump in heroin use occurred among Caucasian Americans and women.
  • Young people and people living in households with an annual income of $20,000 or less were also more likely to abuse the drug.
  • More than 500,000 people in the US used heroin in 2013 – a number that is about 150 percent higher than in 2007.
  • Between 2011 and 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths almost doubled. More than 8,000 people died due to heroin overdose in 2013.

Dr. Tom Frieden is the director of the CDC. He says: “As a doctor who started my career taking care of patients with HIV and other complications from injection drugs, it’s heartbreaking to see injection drug use making a comeback in the US.”

Why the Switch?

What is behind the connection between opiate painkiller abuse or addiction and the rising tide of heroin abuse and dependence? There are a number of issues that may be a contributing factor. For starters, between 2000 and 2010, opiate painkillers were exceptionally easy to access. Doctors handed out prescriptions that were often high dose or long-term when the pills may only have been necessary for a short time and would have been effective at a lower dose. As a result, many families ended up with leftover painkillers in their bathroom cabinets where others could easily find and abuse the medications, and/or patients may have been tempted to abuse their prescription due to all the extra pills.

Regular abuse of the medications can quickly turn into a drug dependence – and maintaining an opiate drug dependence that requires more and more expensive pills can become difficult. Additionally, around 2010, it became apparent that more people were dying due to opiate overdose, and legislators began to crack down. This made it more difficult for patients to get multiple prescriptions for their medication of choice, fill the prescription at multiple pharmacies, or even continue a prescription that had been in use for years.
As a result, many patients found themselves struggling with opiate withdrawal symptoms due to an inability to get the pills that they needed to avoid detox – and heroin was a simple solution. Both prescription painkillers and heroin have a similar active ingredient, and despite the fact that it is illegal, heroin is far easier to access than prescription pills. In addition, heroin is cheaper and a little bit goes a long way. Rather than seek treatment and go through the discomfort of detox and withdrawal, many people opted instead to shift the focus of their opiate addiction to the street drug.

Taking Action

Frieden believes that the best approach to the increasing heroin problem is a multipronged approach. He says that the US should:

  • Continue tracking the use and prescription of painkillers
  • Connect patients in need of treatment with care that will help them overcome opiate addiction
  • Increase efforts to combat the smuggling of heroin into the country
  • Increase the fight against street sales of heroin, thus driving up the price and discouraging use of the drug
  • Increase the availability of the overdose antidote, naloxone, to help save more lives along the way

Michael Botticelli is Director of National Drug Control Policy. In a news release, he says: “It is not enough to simply reverse overdoses. We must also connect overdose victims and people struggling with prescription drug and heroin use disorders to treatment facilities and doctors that offer medication-assisted treatment.”

Opiate Addiction in Your Family?

It’s not always easy to know when someone you love has gone from regular use of a prescription medication to abuse of that drug. It is not uncommon to experience side effects when starting a new medication, but how long do those side effects last? And what behaviors constitute regular use as opposed to abuse of the drugs?

Some behaviors that can indicate your loved one is struggling with a prescription drug abuse problem include:

Connecting With Treatment Services

Whether the drug of choice is heroin or an opiate painkiller, treatment services can help. Often, detox is a necessary first step to address the withdrawal symptoms that often define the first weeks in recovery. However, it is important that the patient follow up with intensive therapeutic treatment in order to learn how to avoid relapse and build a firm foundation in recovery.

What do you think is the best way to identify those who are struggling with opiate dependence of any kind? What are the most effective ways to connect them with treatment? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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Are Prescription Drugs Responsible for the Rising Tide of Heroin Addiction?
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July 30th 2015 | By: The Recovery Village | Posted In: Substance Abuse