Opioid addiction has reached epidemic levels, according to government agencies.

Opioids consist of chemicals that bind to receptors in the body and the brain. Common sources of these compounds include prescribed pain relief medicine and on the illegal side, heroin. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that opioid overdoses accounted for approximately 28,000 fatalities in 2014.

HHS also states that up to one-half of these were associated with the abuse of prescribed pain medication. Deaths related to opioid prescription and heroin overdoses have both increased in the U.S.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reports that those aged 12 -17 had prescribed rates for opioids increase by nearly double between 1994 and 2007. This report also notes that 467,000 people in this age group used pain relievers for non-medical purposes and approximately 168,000 had been addicted to them. Adolescents accessed these from friends or relatives sharing their medications.

The ASAM also reports that women have also been found to have been prescribed stronger pain relievers more frequently, which might lead to increased likelihood of becoming dependent on them. Drug overdoses are listed as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

Prevention solutions include proper disposal of unused pain medication that has been prescribed and greater care in how these are prescribed. Mitigating this growing problem will require a multifaceted public health response in addition to law enforcement. A fact sheet from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy states that the response to addiction will not be effective if only law enforcement is involved.

For individuals in treatment for opioid addiction and those seeking help there are also facilities and medications that can be used to stave off cravings and can help those struggling with drug abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are used in medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

SAMSHA also states that MAT has been found to be effective in reducing the need for detoxification on an inpatient basis and can be tailored to fit individual medical needs.

Methadone and buprenorphine help to prevent continued use by acting on the same neurotransmitters that opioids affect. Because of this, the brain thinks that it is getting the drug it is addicted to without the effects associated with the abused drug. Naltrexone acts in a different way to these two. Rather than acting in place of the opioid, it prevents the euphoria and sedation from occurring in the case of a relapse. This medication has also been approved to act as a preventative measure against an overdose.

Under federal law, anyone undergoing MAT must also be going to a form of counseling or behavioral therapy.

SAMHSA has a national hotline that is free to use and is operational at all hours, those struggling with mental health problems or substance abuse are encouraged to call 1-800-662-4357. This hotline serves to provide information on treatment centers. The SAMHSA website also has a treatment center locator available.

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