US Pharm. 2023;48(3):15-16.

Growing Public Health Crisis

Opioids are a class of drugs used to treat pain and include prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. Opioid use disorder is a complex and growing public health crisis affecting millions worldwide and over 3 million people in the United States. The opioid epidemic, as it is often referred to, has been caused by the overprescription of opioid-based painkillers, the availability of cheap and potent illegal opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and a lack of access to effective treatment options. In 2021, more than 71,000 people died from opioid-related drug overdose in the U.S.

Opioids Relieve Pain, Induce Euphoria

Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain and reducing the perception of pain. At the same time, they also produce feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and reduced anxiety. This pleasurable effect makes opioids highly addictive and prone to abuse.

Opioid use disorder is when a person has developed a dependence on opioids and their use of the drug has become compulsive and uncontrolled. This level of addiction can lead to many negative consequences, including health problems, financial difficulties, strained relationships, and even criminal behavior. People with opioid use disorder may continue to use the drugs even though they are aware of the harm it is causing to their lives.

Opioid use disorder can develop due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Some people are more susceptible to developing an addiction to opioids due to a genetic predisposition. In contrast, others may start using the drugs as a result of chronic pain or a history of substance abuse. Environmental factors such as stress, trauma, and social influences can also play a role in the development of opioid use disorder.

Addiction to opioids occurs across all socioeconomic levels and ethnicities. In the U.S., the prevalence is highest for Native American, black, and non-Hispanic white people. Like other substance abuse disorders, this risk of opioid misuse is higher for those who are younger, male, or at lower education-attainment level, unemployed persons, and those with a lower income. Opioid use disorder carries the continual risk of accidental overdose, trauma, suicide, and infectious diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

Treatments Include Therapy, Medications

Treatment for opioid use disorder is typically a combination of medication-assisted and behavioral therapy. Medication-assisted therapy involves the use of drugs such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, which help to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Using these medications in conjunction with counseling, group therapy, and other behavioral therapies aims to help individuals understand the causes of their addiction and develop coping strategies to avoid future use.

Inpatient rehabilitation programs and detoxification facilities help individuals overcome opioid use disorder with a more intensive protocol. These programs provide a supportive and structured environment where individuals can focus on recovery and receive round-the-clock care and support.

For acute opioid overdoses, emergency treatment with naloxone can be given by first responders.

Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction

One of the biggest challenges in treating opioid use disorder is overcoming the stigma associated with addiction. Many people believe that addiction is a personal failure rather than a disease. As a result, they may be reluctant to seek help. This stigma can also make it difficult for individuals to access effective treatment options. They may fear being judged or facing discrimination.

Another challenge is a lack of access to medication-assisted therapy. This treatment is often not covered by insurance, resulting in many individuals being unable to afford participation in these programs. There are also concerns about the long-term effects of these medications, with some individuals hesitant to start taking them.

Finally, the opioid epidemic has significantly strained the healthcare system, leading to overcrowding in many treatment programs and facilities. Few available treatment programs and many individuals needing help are severe challenges to halting the growing opioid epidemic.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

To comment on this article, contact