In the United States, opiate and opioid addiction have become a national epidemic. The team at Hawaiian Island Recovery is committed to helping those who have become addicted to these powerful drugs while also educating the public on the realities of this addiction. Read on to learn more about opiates and opioids—including how prescription drugs are becoming a gateway to heroin.

What are opiates and opioids?

Opiates and opioids are a class of drugs that are frequently prescribed by American doctors as a treatment for chronic and severe pain. These drugs bind to opioid receptors in the brain and throughout the body to reduce the user’s ability to perceive pain. Although there are technical differences in the classification of opiate versus opioid, many people use these terms interchangeably. Opiate is the more common term of choice, so we will use that one here.

Codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl are all examples of prescription opiates. You may better recognize some of them by their more common brand names, such as Vicodin or Oxycontin. Heroin is a more powerful opiate and is illegal in the United States.

How does addiction occur?

For most opiate addicts, the story begins when they are prescribed a painkiller by their doctor. If the patient continues to rely on these drugs for the long term, their tolerance levels will begin to rise. As a result, it will take more opiates than before to continue numbing those feelings of pain. Patients may request increased dosages or up to the usage without medical guidance by taking multiple doses at once. Others begin to crush the pills and snort or inject their opiates for a stronger effect.

As an opiate user’s tolerance and typical dosage increase over time, they can become dependent on the drug. This occurs when drug use or abuse is driven more by a desire to stave off withdrawal symptoms than to treat the original pain. Dependence can often lead to death by accidental overdose or heroin abuse (which can also lead to a fatal overdose).

What are the symptoms of opiate withdrawal?

The symptoms of opiate withdrawal are quite uncomfortable, which is why many patients become desperate to keep those symptoms at bay. Emotional symptoms may include low energy, insomnia, anxiety, agitation, and irritability. Physical symptoms may range from minor discomforts such as a runny nose, teary eyes, goosebumps, and yawning to more severe pain, including muscle aches, stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold sweats.

Why is this a national epidemic?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that 2.1 million Americans are now addicted to opiates. Furthermore, overdose deaths—often caused by a cardiac or respiratory arrest—have quadrupled in the United States since 1999.

Why the drastic increase? One significant factor is the increased availability of prescription painkillers. The NIDA also reported that doctors are prescribing opiates for pain medication more than ever before as pharmaceutical companies have continued to push the drugs. Opioid prescriptions have climbed rapidly from 76 million prescriptions in 1991 to 207 million in 2013.

The increased availability has also sparked a second, closely linked epidemic of increased heroin abuse in the US. Opiate addicts know that heroin is a cheaper and easier way to attain a high or stave off those painful withdrawal symptoms. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that a whopping 80% of new heroin users start out by abusing prescription painkillers.

Because heroin is illegal and unregulated, it is impossible for users to ever be sure of what dose they are taking—or with what other drugs the heroin may be mixed. This makes it extremely easy to accidentally overdose, which can quickly turn fatal.

What should I do if I or someone I know is abusing opiates?

Never think that because opiates are a legal drug, there is no real danger associated with opiate use, abuse, or addiction. As dependence increases, there is a serious danger of fatal overdose or heroin abuse—which is an even more addictive and dangerous alternative.

Making the call to a trusted rehab center for help, even early in your opiate dependency, could help save your life. Contact Hawaii Island Recovery today for more information.

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