According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 70,630 drug overdose deaths in 2019, the majority of which involved opioid drugs. Overdose rates increased further in 2020, with provisional data showing that there were an estimated 95,230 deaths from drug overdose during the 12-month period ending in January 2021. It cannot be denied that drug overdose is a public health threat, and it is critical that steps be taken to move toward better overdose prevention. Consider the strategies below.
Improved Opioid Prescribing
Improving the prescribing of opioids is one of the key factors that can reduce overdose deaths.
As the CDC explains, opioid pain medications are risky: “Opioid pain medication use presents serious risks, including overdose and opioid use disorder” the CDC reports. Further, research shows that having a prescription for these medications not only increases the risk of an opioid addiction but also leads to increased risk for an opioid overdose. The report indicates that from “1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 persons died from overdose related [specifically] to opioid pain medication.”
There are cases in which patients legitimately need pain medications, such as for acute pain after a surgery or for chronic pain that occurs with cancer. That being said, physicians recognize that long-term use of opioids is linked to addiction, and they express concern that overuse of opioids for non-cancer pain is problematic.
To reduce the consequences, including overdose, that can come along with opioid use, it is critical that physicians receive adequate training on pain medication use and utilize caution when prescribing these medications.
The importance of using caution when prescribing opioids is evident, given the following statistics:
- Over 20% of people who take prescription opioids for chronic pain abuse these drugs.
- Around 10% of people who take opioids for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder, which is the clinical term for an addiction to opioids.
- Of people who use heroin, 80% began by misusing prescription opioids.
Given what is known about prescription opioids, it is clear that these medications, while effective, bring a risk of addiction. Some people who begin by misusing these drugs may escalate to using heroin, which ultimately increases their risk of overdose. It is vital for physicians to exercise caution when prescribing these medications, and for patients to take them exactly as prescribed, to avoid potentially fatal consequences.
Another overdose prevention strategy that has come to the forefront is the use of the life-saving drug naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose.
Law enforcement officials and emergency medical personnel, such as paramedics, are trained in the administration of naloxone to overdose victims, but it is also important to expand naloxone access to citizens who may respond in the event of an overdose. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, family members and loved ones of individuals with addictions can be trained to use naloxone. In some cases, loved ones may be able to purchase naloxone from a pharmacy without a prescription. In addition, community organizations and public health departments may distribute naloxone without a charge.
Quality addiction treatment is necessary to reduce the prevalence of drug overdose deaths. When individuals with substance use disorders have access to treatment, they are more likely to stop using drugs, and less likely to overdose.
It is critical that addiction treatment includes relapse prevention programming, as individuals with addictions may be at risk of overdose when they relapse after being sober. This is because when people return to drug use after a period of sobriety, they are likely to have lost their tolerance to drugs. If they return to using the same amount they were accustomed to using before they stopped, the body may not be used to the high dose, and overdose is more likely.
Addiction treatment programming that helps people to develop strategies for relapse, and provides education on overdose risks, is essential.
While it is possible to overdose on drugs other than opioids, much of the overdose prevention literature does focus on opioid overdoses, given that they are the most prevalent. One treatment method that can be effective for reducing opioid-related deaths is medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. This form of treatment combines behavioral strategies like counseling with the use of medications that reduce drug cravings and alleviate withdrawal symptoms.
According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, MAT reduces illegal opioid use, helps people stay in treatment, and improves survival rates for individuals with addictions. MAT can therefore play a central role in overdose prevention, especially for patients with opioid addictions.
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