It’s no secret that the U.S. is in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and disturbing new data shows that drug overdose deaths may get worse before they get better. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new figures revealing that overdose-related deaths in the U.S. nearly tripled between 1999 and 2014. Opioids, aka powerful drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, were largely to blame.
According to the data, there were 47,055 drug overdose deaths in 2014, and 28,647 of them involved opioids.
Unfortunately, the increase in deaths seems to still be on an upswing. The CDC reports that from 2014 to 2015, death rates increased by nearly 16 percent, and 72 percent of those were from heroin and synthetic opioids. “Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, which are mixed with heroin or used on their own, are much more potent than heroin and more resistant to opioid overdose reversal drugs like naloxone,” Linda Richter, Ph.D., director of policy research and analysis at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, tells SELF. “They are cheaper to make than heroin and are flooding some states, like Ohio, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.” There was also a 3 percent increase in deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids like morphine, codeine, and oxycodone.
While more men than women are dying from opioid overdoses, there was a nearly 117 percent increase of deaths from using these drugs among young women under the age of 24.
While the news is disturbing, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF that it’s not surprising—and that there are several factors behind the increase. The first is that prescriptions for opioids have been rapidly increasing, she says. According to CDC data, the number of prescriptions for opioids nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, but there has not been a change in the amount of pain that Americans report. The CDC says that prescription rates are the highest among pain medicine specialists, surgeons, and physical rehabilitation specialists, but primary care physicians account for about half of opioid pain reliever prescriptions.
“Doctors need to better educate patients on the risks of these medications and perhaps reserve them for severe pain cases,” Wider says. There is also a need to educate people on when and how to taper off of prescription opioids, Wider says. Failure to do so, or to do so the right way, can increase a person’s risk of addiction. “They are dangerous medications with a high addictive potential,” Wider says.
The CDC also says the misuse of prescription opioids can lead someone to try illegal drugs: “Data have demonstrated that non-medical use of prescription opioids is a significant risk factor for heroin use, underscoring the need for continued prevention efforts around prescription opioids.”
Jason M. Jerry, M.D., an addiction specialist at the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center at Cleveland Clinic, agrees. “Most of our heroin addicts started with prescription narcotics,” he tells SELF. “Maybe they had a car accident, their doctor gave them prescription narcotics, and they soon found that they liked the way that it made them feel,” he says. Afterwards, some people may seek out an illicit drug like heroin because it’s “far cheaper” than prescription opioids, Jerry says.
While more people have become addicted to opioids, Richter says the country’s treatment system has not been able to keep up with the demand. “There are effective medications to treat opioid addiction, but medication-assisted treatment is not available to most people who could benefit from it,” she says. “Public policy is starting to change to help make these medications more available, but there has been a lot of resistance over the years to providing medications to treat people who are addicted to prescription and illegal opioid drugs, due to the misplaced fear of replacing one addiction with another.”
There also aren’t enough doctors who are eligible to prescribe medication-assisted treatment, Richter says, and there are limits to how many patients physicians can treat this way. “Policies aimed at reducing the supply of prescription pain medications are helpful, but they do not deter people who are addicted to prescription painkillers from turning to heroin and illegal synthetic opioids,” Richter says. “Federal and state policymakers are recognizing these shortcomings in our legislation and our treatment system and are starting to pass important legislation to help remedy the problem.” If the government puts enough resources into improving addiction treatment and prevention, Richter says the deadly trend should start to reverse.
Jerry says the medical community and patients need to continue to be mindful about the dangers of prescription opioids since the problem so often starts with a prescribed painkiller. “That’s our big opportunity to intervene,” he says. “Once this disease establishes itself, it’s a long and very difficult road.”