Understanding the Opioid Crisis

Opioids are highly addictive, and Incidences of opioid addiction, overdoses and deaths are rising to epidemic proportions across the U.S., affecting all ages, ethnicities, income levels and communities.

Page updated on Feb 4, 2021 at 4:22 PM

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain. They include prescriptions like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl as well as illegal opioids like heroin. Learn more about opioids at the Center for Disease Control website.

What do opioids and heroin look like?

Opioids come in a variety of forms. Prescription opioids can be in tablet, capsule and suppository form as well as syrups. Illegal opioids can be in dark brown chunks or powder; heroin is usually a white or brownish powder. 

What is fentanyl and how is it used?

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as an analgesic (pain relief) and anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic. Fentanyl can be injected, snorted/sniffed, smoked, taken orally by pill or tablet, and spiked onto blotter paper. Fentanyl patches are abused by removing its gel contents and then injecting or ingesting these contents. Patches have also been frozen, cut into pieces and placed under the tongue or in the cheek cavity. Illicitly produced fentanyl is sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances and has been identified in counterfeit pills, mimicking pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone. According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, reports on fentanyl (both pharmaceutical and clandestinely produced) increased from nearly 5,400 in 2014 to over 56,500 in 2017, as reported by federal, state and local forensic laboratories in the United States. (Source: Drug Fact Sheet: Fentanyl by the Drug Enforcement Agency)

What’s the problem?

Opioids are highly addictive. Incidences of opioid addiction, overdoses and deaths are rising to epidemic proportions across the U.S., affecting all ages, ethnicities, income levels and communities.

According to the CDC, overdoses involving opioids killed more than 47,000 people in 2017. From 2016 to 2017, overdose deaths involving all opioids and synthetic opioids increased, while deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin remained stable. The opioid overdose epidemic continues to worsen and evolve because of the continuing increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Another driving force behind the increase in overdose deaths is prescription opioids, which accounted for 36% of opioid related deaths in 2017. In 2014, the CDC reports that two million Americans were misusing or dependent on prescription opioids. Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms across the country for misusing the drugs. The Alexandria Health Department reports the number of residents treated for opioid overdoses in regional hospitals rose to 105 in 2016, up from 88 in 2015. The Alexandria Police Department reports there were 50 non-fatal overdoses and 9 fatal overdoses in 2017.

Who misuses opioids?

The rising misuse of prescription opioids is changing the demographics of drug misuse. Some studies have found that those who misuse prescription opioids tend to be more steadily employed, healthy and connected to social institutions like marriage and religion than heroin users, who tend to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged, disconnected from social institutions and less healthy. According to Time, most people who misuse prescription opioids say they originally turned to them to relieve pain; 60% continue to misuse them without a prescription, with 40% getting the drugs from friends and relatives. 

I don’t use opioids, so why should I be concerned?

This is a national problem that we all share, whether we want to or not.  You may not be currently using opioids legally or illegally, but the crisis still touches you.

Over prescribing has flooded our households with excess opioid medication. Many of us hold on to unused prescription opioids for future use, but this is illegal and has the potential to harm others as kindling for a relative’s opioid disorder. Most people with an opioid use disorder start with prescription opioids.

For every death from an overdose, there are many more injuries or other near misses. The probability is high that you share an office, highway or trailway with opioid users.  

Also, one day you or a loved one may have a sports injury, a car accident or need surgery. You will need to make informed decisions about how to manage pain carefully and reduce the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Read more at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.