By Christa Banister

Whether it’s popular entertainers like Tom Petty and Prince or regular high school students who live in suburbs with relatively low crime rates, death from opioids hasn’t discriminated between the famous and non-famous, rich and poor, the city dwellers or country folks. In fact, every day in America, 91 people die from opioid overdoses, a number that has increased a stunning 137 percent since 2000.1

To throw out an even more staggering figure, one person dies of an overdose every 10 minutes, which means six every hour, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdoses now lead to more American fatalities than guns or car accidents.2

So what is it exactly that led to the spike in opioid use and how has addiction become so widespread? Why are people abusing prescription drugs in record numbers and often eventually trading them for heroin? And most importantly, what can be done to help?

What Exactly Is an Opioid, Anyway?

Numbered wooden diceMany people’s struggles with opioids begin with their medicine cabinet. Opioids, which include a range of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals, are often prescribed antidotes for pain.3 Unfortunately, opioids are also available in illegal forms like heroin, which provides an even stronger high at a lower cost. In addition to providing the numbing effect for, say, a back injury, opioids can produce a euphoric feeling by creating fake endorphins that your body begins preferring and wanting even more.

Not surprisingly, the blissful escape that opioids provide can lead to physical and psychological dependence. There can be unpleasant withdrawal symptoms with a laundry list of side effects you’ve probably heard on a slew of television commercials. For opioids, everything from slowed breathing to excessive drowsiness to nausea, constipation and vomiting can be a serious issue.

How Did Opioid Use Escalate So Dramatically?

In the beginning, prescription opioids were administered a short-term solution to pain. But once the ‘90s rolled around, physicians began to view them as more of a long-term answer for chronic discomfort.4 As time wore on, this extended use eventually led to higher addiction levels and, sadly, overdoses. Since 1999, for example, the number of overdoses directly attributed to opioid misuse quadrupled.

As people became accustomed to the feelings that resulted from prescription opioids and eventually built up a tolerance, many began seeking more potent methods of satisfying this need. This is precisely what’s led to an increasing number of heroin addicts, and because the demand is so high, it’s now being laced with even stronger, and infinitely more dangerous, forms of opiates — including carfentanil and fentanyl.

What’s Being Done and How Can My Loved One Be Helped?

Like all complex, multi-faceted social problems, there’s no quick, easy fix for the opioid crisis. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t invested in exploring the best methods moving forward.

Experts agree on one thing: It’s going to take a myriad of strategies to slow things down considerably. Everything from state drug monitoring programs to help doctors better assist their patients in managing pain to having treatment regularly available for those already struggling with addiction to providing a wide distribution of life-saving, emergency antidotes like naloxone have all been suggested.

In the meantime, a federal commission has been established to not only declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, but to begin making recommendations for how to best move forward.

For those seeking individualized, patient-focused care in the here and now, facilities like Holly Hill Hospital provide help and hope for people of all ages in treating substance use disorders. If you think you might need help, you don’t have to walk through it alone. Please call us.


1 Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Dying From an Opioid Overdose is More Common Than You Think.” Time, August 7, 2017.

2 Helling, Steve and Rockey Fleming, Alexandra. “Faces of an Epidemic: Stories of the Victims of America’s Opioid Crisis.” People, August 19, 2017.

3 Rudavsky, Shari. “What are Opioids and Answers to Other Questions About Heroin and Opioid Epidemic.” Indy Star, September 29, 2017.

4Special Report: The Opioid Epidemic.” AARP, June 2017.