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Opioid Overdose Facts: Why Are Overdoses More Frequent With Opioids?

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Opioid Overdose Facts

Opioid Overdose Facts and Statistics

Looking at the latest opioid overdose numbers in the United States is alarming. Tens of thousands of people die each year due to drug overdose. Many more struggle with substance abuse, which takes a toll on physical, mental, emotional, and social health. Opioids are the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S., and millions of people have been directly or indirectly affected by the opioid epidemic. Take a look at the opioid overdose facts to learn why these drugs are so deadly and what you can do to treat opioid abuse.

Opioid Statistics

The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s with a rise in prescriptions for potent opioids. Pharmaceutical companies were told that these medications were a safe, effective pain management option; doctors prescribed opioids widely. At the peak of the prescription opioid problem, doctors wrote enough prescriptions for every adult in the U.S. to have one. While prescriptions have trended downward over the past ten years, heroin and synthetic opioid rates continue to rise.
In 2018, the latest year for which data are available, nearly 70,000 people died from drug overdoses. That is equivalent to 128 people per day. Approximately 2 out of 3 deaths were linked to opioids, including prescription drugs, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Altogether, from 1999 to 2018, more than 750,000 people died from a drug overdose. Millions more struggle to control their substance use.

These opioid overdose numbers clearly show the toll this epidemic has taken on people living in the U.S. Effective treatments need to address all aspects of opioid use, including physical dependence and addiction.

How Opioids Cause Physical Dependence

Opioids work by traveling throughout the body and binding to particular receptor sites. These opioid receptors are found throughout the brain, spinal cord, digestive tract, and peripheral neurons. Once an opioid molecule binds to the receptor, it triggers a series of responses. There are several types of opioid receptors, and the exact reactions vary. However, the general effect is to cause a pain-numbing effect. Some people who use opioids also feel a certain level of euphoria, a floaty “I don’t care” feeling, or emotional numbing.
Once an opioid molecule binds to the receptor, the cell may change somewhat. Over time, receptors can become used to the presence of opioids. They may not respond as strongly to new opioid molecules. Cells may also change the number of opioid receptors on their surface. Taken together, this is known as physiological dependence. Your body becomes accustomed to having opioids around. You begin to need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. This is called tolerance. Many people with opioid dependence also develop withdrawal symptoms. These occur when you do not take opioids as frequently or in the same doses that you are used to. Going without the drug causes your body to become off-balance, resulting in symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, runny nose, teary eyes, and chills.

Together, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are signs of physiological dependence on opioids. Opioid dependence makes it very challenging to become sober without medical assistance. The uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that come with quitting opioids keep many people in a cycle of drug use.

Opioid Dependence vs. Addiction

Although the terms are often confused, opioid dependence differs from opioid addiction. Anyone who uses opioids for an extended period of time will develop opioid dependence. It is a normal biological consequence of using the same drug repeatedly. Users of legal prescription opioids and illegally obtained narcotics will create some dependence.
Addiction, on the other hand, refers to a behavioral phenomenon. Someone who is addicted to opioids develops intense cravings to use the drug. At its core, addiction causes a relentless need to find, use, and feel the effects of using opioids. This may lead to lying about substance use, poor performance at work or school, relationship problems, and preoccupation with using drugs. Addiction has adverse effects on your behaviors, emotions, and mental health. It is important to remember that a person can have physiological dependence but not be addicted to opioids.
Untreated mental health conditions are a massive driver of addiction. Often, people start using opioids to numb physical or emotional pain. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health issues become so intolerable that people cannot cope. They then take opioids and find short-term relief from the constant feelings of distress. Opioids temporarily numb the emotional pain. Unfortunately, it takes more and more of the drug to achieve the same numbing effect over time. Furthermore, drugs also are an inadequate choice fora long-term coping solution because while they mask unwanted feelings, they do not address the core of the underlying mental health issues.

What Makes Opioid Overdose So Deadly?

Chronic use of opioids affects your body and brain, as described above. So do other drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and amphetamines. However, opioids are particularly likely to be involved in overdose deaths. So why are opioids so deadly?
The answer lies in the type of effect opioids have on the body. Opioids are considered a central nervous system depressant, meaning that they slow down signals to your brain, heart, lungs, and other organs. Side effects of opioid use include slowed breathing rate, constricted pupils, and fatigue.

When taking in high doses, opioids can slow down the central nervous system so much that they become deadly. This is what happens during an overdose. Breathing rate slows or stops, and the brain and heart do not get the oxygen they need to survive.

Why Opioid Overdoses are Spiking Now, and What to Do About It?

Although national data have not yet been released, local public health officials say that opioid overdose deaths increased in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be due to a link between COVID-19 and unemployment, depression, isolation, loneliness, and other mental health problems. These stressors have led many people to seek out opioids to numb the pain.
People in recovery from opioid addiction are among the most vulnerable. They may have pre-existing mental health conditions made worse by the pandemic. In times of stress, they may decide to try opioids again. However, most people in sustained recovery have opioid receptors that have returned to their previous drug-free state. They no longer have the tolerance they built up when using opioids regularly. That means that taking the same amount of drugs they used can have deadly effects. A person’s system can become flooded with potent drugs, causing an overdose.

The Rise in Synthetic Opioids

Additionally, the rise in synthetic opioids like fentanyl has also affected overdose rates. Fentanyl is produced in laboratories in China and other countries, transported to Mexico, and trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. This means that even a very tiny amount can have a powerful effect on the body and brain. Even worse, drug dealers often lace their products with fentanyl as a cheap way to make them more powerful. People buying street drugs like pain pills or heroin do not always know that drugs have been laced with fentanyl. This significantly increases the person’s risk of overdose.
The United States is approaching a critical point in the opioid epidemic. Tens of thousands of people are dying, but little is being done. Vulnerable people need access to life-saving opioid overdose treatment. Effective treatments address the underlying problems that fuel addiction. The first step is to undergo medical detox. During medical detox, a team of professionals monitors the patient’s progress as opioids are cleansed from their system. Care is taken to keep the person medically stable and avoid pain or complications. Once the person is opioid-free, it is time to begin the hard work of recovery. This focuses on treatment for the mental health issues that perpetuate addiction.

With medical detox and supportive aftercare, individuals can maintain a healthy, opioid-free life and avoid the threat of overdose.


There are several reasons why overdoses are more frequent with opioids than other drugs. The factors include biological, psychological, and social aspects. To effectively address and treat opioid use disorder, you need to diagnose and treat the individual physically and emotionally adequately. We can significantly prevent overdoses if we give the appropriate time and effort each patient requires.

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