Overdose deaths have continued to be on the rise. Although the United States was able to curve overdose deaths for a couple of years, the numbers continue to grow today. When the opioid crisis was met with a global pandemic the recipe for drug overdose ended in a disaster. The decline in overdose deaths occurred during 2012-2019 but has been on a steady and alarming increase in recent years.
What is the main cause of overdose deaths?
Currently, the leading factor in overdose deaths is opioids. The opioid overdose deaths have been in the making since the 1990s. During the 1990s the first wave of overdose deaths started occurring because of prescription drug use. At that time prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone were being overprescribed to patients. There was a lack of education and prevention about what would happen with patients using opioids for long periods of time.
The next occurrence happened in 2010 with an increase of heroin use and overdoses caused by heroin. A national crackdown on prescription drugs resulted in people turning to heroin use. Heroin was easily acceptable to people and was also relatively inexpensive to get. In 2013, most of the overdose deaths began to happen as a result of synthetic opioids or drugs like fentanyl. Fentanyl can be manufactured illegally and mixed with other substances which makes for a deadly combination. People who use fentanyl really have no assurance of what they are actually putting in their bodies.
Where did fentanyl come from and why is it causing deaths?
The majority of fentanyl in the United States comes from China. China was not the first country to produce fentanyl but is the largest distributor of fentanyl into the United States. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine. Although fentanyl can be prescribed by a doctor, the majority of the fentanyl that is being abused on the streets is illegally manufactured. Fentanyl is mixed with other substances which causes it to become even more potent. It is impossible to know what level of fentanyl is in a drug when a person is purchasing it illegally. Opioids like fentanyl are the leading cause in overdose deaths. From 2020 to 2021 overdose deaths rose 38 percent. Overdose deaths that were led by fentanyl as the primary substance use rose 55 percent in the last year. Anyone who uses fentanyl illegally and purchases it illegally is at risk of overdose death.
What happens during an overdose?
The signs of an overdose vary from person to person. After a person ingests opioids and they are displaying signs of an overdose, their central nervous system will be affected immediately. They may have shallow breathing, weak pulse, clammy skin, and are unresponsive. Their skin and lips will appear a blueish color. Their body may go into respiratory arrest. Oxygen flow may stop going to the brain. As oxygen levels slow down the heart will be affected. Many people who witness overdose report a choking or gurgling sound by the person who is struggling to breathe. Even if a person remains awake, they will be unresponsive and unable to talk.
How to respond to overdose
If overdose is suspected, the first thing a person should do is call 911. In some states, there is a Good Samaritan law that protects those who call and report an overdose is happening. Even if criminal activity is involved during the time of the overdose, if the person is calling in good faith they will be protected from prosecution. Because overdose will immediately impact a person’s breathing, attempting to help open a person’s airway is a good place to start.
Administering the drug Narcan can begin to reverse the symptoms of overdose. Narcan is a prescription drug that blocks the effects of opiates on the brain. It can be obtained from a prescription from a doctor or by going to the pharmacy where some pharmacists will hand out Narcan to those who come in and request it. Other states have adopted different days throughout the year where Narcan can be obtained from pharmacies for free and without prescription. The most important part of assisting someone in an overdose is to make sure that you stay with the person until an ambulance arrives.
Where do we go from here?
In 2020-2021, over 93,000 people died from drug overdoses. The numbers are staggering and frustrating to those who have tried to combat the increase in overdoses. It is no longer a matter of doing more to combat substance use disorder but what needs to be done. The types of treatment need to be adjusted to begin to save lives. For instance, we have proven that sending drug users to prison is not the answer. Evidence-based treatment practices and access to treatment for those who suffer needs to be the basis for which we begin to turn the overdose deaths around. Harm reduction services have been shown to be effective. Research supports the use of harm reduction treatment. However, some communities still attach a stigma to harm reduction models. The expectations of drug users and standards need to change so the overdose rise can be turned around.