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It is not hard for doctors to tell when an opioid user is on the verge of an overdose. Opioid abusers enter the hospital with pale, clammy skin. Their lips and fingers might appear blue or even black. They nod in and out of consciousness, vigorously scratching their itchy skin. It is a race to get the patient help as soon as possible before they begin to make choking noises and gargle sounds, known as the death rattle. Once patients progress to this point, the opiates have blocked their ability to breathe and the users are on the brink of death.
While this might seem like a dramatic scenario for drugs commonly used in non-fatal situations, every day, 78 Americans die from opioid overdoses. Unfortunately, the amount of overdoses seems likely to rise, as the number of opioid prescriptions in the United States has almost quadrupled since 1999.
Heather Press started drinking and using marijuana in her early teens, but it was not long before her drug abuse began to spread to more harmful drugs. Growing up in a home where drugs and alcohol were commonplace, she moved to prescription pills such as Xanax and other painkillers. Unfortunately for Press, this intensified use culminated in a heroin addiction.
Thankfully Press, at the age of thirty, is now capable of sharing her story as a drug- and alcohol-free woman. However, she knows that she is extremely lucky to be in that position today. For many, their experience going from prescription drug use to heroin use results in death. “When the disease of addiction grabs ahold of you, it does not want to let go,” said Press. Her path to recovery was a rocky road, but she is fortunate to be reaping the benefits of a sober lifestyle today.
Press was more fortunate than Laura McCaughey. Shortly after graduating from high school, her heroin problem caused her to pass out behind the wheel of her car. She ended up running her car into a telephone pole. Despite receiving an OWI (Operating While Intoxicated citation) that night, the drug had such a strong hold on her that she overdosed at least three more times. Injections saved her life on each occasion.
McCaughey, who grew up in a normal, middle-class home, was an honor student and three-sport athlete. “I was a smart kid. I made my own decisions,” she said. “I was fully capable of being able to do that. It was curiosity, but there’s something that clearly works differently in my head to say that no red flags were raised, nothing that said you need to get out of this situation.” Despite her intelligence and upbringing, the addiction was powerful enough to take over her life. She lost the support of several friends and family members before she was lucky enough to find her sobriety.
Opioids are pain-relieving drugs that affect both the brain and the body. They include prescription drugs such as morphine, OxyContin, Norco, and fentanyl, as well as the illegal drug heroin.
The misuse of prescription opioids has been on the rise because doctors are overprescribing painkillers. It has gotten so bad that the United States alone is consuming more than 80 percent of the global opioid supply. For that reason, the abuse of opioid painkillers and heroin (a drug that gives users a cheaper yet similar high) has gone through the roof. Heroin-related deaths have become four times more common in the Midwest region alone.
“While there are several people who are abusing this class of drugs, there are also many patients who legitimately need them for pain relief,” said Renae Chestnut, the dean of Drake University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “So, as we increase the regulations and access to these drugs, many of the patients who legitimately need them could be harmed.”
It is also becoming more common for college kids to hold “pharm parties.” These are gatherings where kids steal pills from their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets and dump them in a bowl, trying the drugs to see if they have any effect.
Because of the intense highs that opioids have on the brain, users can sometimes show signs of addiction within only three days of first use. Opioid addiction is a slippery slope for college students because the side effects have the potential to derail an individual’s life educationally, socially, and even professionally down the line. Some of more severe symptoms of opioid abuse include:
- Abusers often feel more foggy-headed and drowsy, making it harder to focus on lectures, exams, and job tasks.
- Constant constipation issues can make social situations a hassle.
- Breathing problems and other respiratory issues can become serious health issues.
- Depression, which can create heightened levels of anxiety and a feeling of loneliness.
- High levels of agitation, which can put strains on relationships.
- Permanent brain and liver damage.
- Potential deaths from overdoses.
While many think that younger people are less prone to becoming addicted to opioids, that is a complete myth. Over 2,500 children between the ages 12 and 17 abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time every day. Here are other alarming facts about young people and opioid use:
- Six percent of 17-to 25-year-olds have abused prescription drugs in the past month.
- A study found that teens who have taken prescription opioid pain medications before Grade 12 are 33 percent more likely to abuse between ages of 19 and 25.
- A survey found that half of teens believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs.
- Fewer than 12 percent of teens who report symptoms of substance abuse or dependence receive any treatment for these conditions.
- Overwhelmingly, the most common reason teens do not receive treatment is that they do not perceive a need of it.
- Michigan was one of 15 states to see a significant rise in opioid-related deaths over 2013-2014, rising 13.2 percent in that period.
- Prescription opioids contributed to the deaths of more than 500 Michigan residents in 2014. Heroin contributed to the deaths of more than 400.
- More than 1,700 Michigan residents died from drug-related causes in 2014.
- The state of Michigan experiences more deaths due to to drug-related overdoses than to car accidents.
Fentanyl is an opioid that is used as anesthesia to help prevent pain after medical procedures. It has been found to be 50 to 100 times more potent that morphine. It as an extremely dangerous drug to use outside of a hospital because the differences between lethal doses and therapeutic doses are very small. Since fentanyl is such a strong drug, it has strong effects on the body:
- Significant swelling of the hands, feet, and ankles.
- Lethargy and shortness of breath.
- Constant headaches and migraines accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
- Potential addiction, often leading to lethal overdose.
Norco is an opioid pain reliever (hydrocodone) and cough suppressant combined with another pain reliever, acetaminophen. Doctors prescribe it for moderate to severe pain. Norco is one of the more dangerous medications for opioid addicts because of how easy it is to obtain. Some of the side effects of Norco abuse include:
- Seizures and convulsions.
- Confusion and unusual thoughts or behavior.
- Liver problems that can lead to nausea, stomach pain, and jaundice (a condition that turns the skin, eyes, and mouth yellow).
- Problems with infertility and sex drive.
OxyContin is a highly prescribed drug used to manage strong pain. People commonly abuse it to experience euphoric highs. This is because using OxyContin creates a sudden rush of dopamine in the brain. This satisfying feeling might lead people down the path of addiction. Some of the other side effects OxyContin can create include:
- Jerky muscle movements, spasms, and reduced reaction to stimuli.
- Slowing of the heart and lungs, which limits oxygen delivery to the rest of the body, including the brain.
- Effects on the gastrointestinal tract, including severe constipation and persistent vomiting.
- When injected, it OxyContin can block the bloodstream, causing infection and even putting the user at risk for AIDS or HIV.
Many opioid abusers start out by taking pills from a family member’s medicine cabinet, thinking that these prescription medications are safer than an illicit (illegal) drug. What they typically fail to realize is that prescription opioids affect the same area of the brain that heroin does, making them highly addictive. Once users become hooked on opioids, they start on a path that can be extremely difficult to leave.
Once addicted, opioid abusers attempt to get their hands on more opioids or replace their habit with a similar, yet dangerous, illegal drug. Often, this drug is heroin. In fact, around half of young heroin abusers were previously prescription opioid abusers.
About 23 percent of people who use heroin end up becoming dependent on it, making it one of the most addictive drugs in the world. It is also a drug that raises the chance of the user contracting AIDS or HIV, as it is often injected. Since heroin is extremely addictive and costs money, abusers may turn to crime to pay for their habits. The stress created by the drug also puts the user at a higher risk of suffering through emotional consequences.
A heroin addict located in Bay City, Michigan was willing to share his story of abuse with Mlive.com. Telling the story under the name Bill, an alias he used to protect his identity, he spoke about how his addiction started in high school. After experimenting with marijuana and alcohol, he moved on to trying prescription pills such as Adderall, Vicodin, and Seroquel. He particularly liked Vicodin because of its numbing effect, even though he was not going through any pain. This led him towards OxyContin, another opioid painkilling drug that has similar effects at a much more potent level.
Bill was initially worried about trying heroin, but it was about a third of the price of the OxyContin. Throughout his addiction, Bill has overdosed twice and has taken three of his friends to the hospital for their own overdoses. He has also contracted hepatitis C, staph infections, and skin diseases like folliculitis and cellulitis. While he understands that these experiences should keep him from using heroin, the drug is so addictive that he keeps coming back for more.
Heroin abuse has made Bill drop out of high school, lose several jobs, and serve multiple sentences in jail. To this day, he still wishes he could go back to his high school years and stop his drug problems from ruining his life.
Many view Adderall as a smart drug. Used correctly, the prescription drug can help people with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy. Unfortunately, students also use the drug incorrectly, to boost their energy and cram for tests.
College students are more than twice as likely to abuse Adderall as the rest of the population, yet many users fail to realize that it does as much harm as good in many situations, since it can cause psychological and physical effects. Here are some of the negative side effects of Adderall:
- Risks to your cardiovascular health. Adderall has been known to elevate blood pressure, leading to forms of heart disease and even cardiac arrest in some cases.
- Allergic reactions, which can cause serious rashes and hypersensitivity issues.
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea, dry mouth, constipation, and anorexia, causing unhealthy weight loss.
- Psychotic episodes, even at recommended doses. Adderall abuse can also contribute to depression, aggression, tremors, and other issues.
While it may seem like a logical decision for those addicted to opioids, Adderall, or other drugs to immediately seek help, there are a variety of social, financial, and other issues that may be holding an addict back. Here are some of the more common reasons why some abusers are choosing to not seek help:
- More than 32 percent of drug users either do not have adequate health coverage or the funds to pay for care, per the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Many students worry about taking time from their educations or jobs to seek treatment.
- Students are afraid of telling family and friends about their addiction because they do not want to disappoint them.
- The physical dependence is too strong for users to consider stopping their drug use.
Thankfully for opioid abusers, there are a wide variety of treatment methods specifically designed to cure addiction. It is important, however, that the abuser finds help as soon as possible. The longer addicts abuse drugs and the more drugs they consume, the more they place themselves in harm’s way. There were 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain medications in the year 2014 alone. Do you want to abuse opioids? Do you want to be one of those statistics?