Opioids are narcotic drugs that affect the nervous system and act as a pain reliever and include synthetic or partly synthetic drugs that mimic opiates, such as heroin. Common prescription opioids include codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone. While opioids are a common and effective method of treating severe and chronic pain, long term use and abuse can lead to addiction, physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. Opioids are some of the most commonly abused drugs worldwide, with user numbers exceeding those of cocaine and ecstasy.
Over the last decade, the United States has seen an increase in deaths related to heroin and prescription opioid abuse. Although these numbers have decreased in recent years, deaths due heroin and prescription opioids remain real problems, while the introduction of new synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have compounded the issue, leading to a steep rise in overdose deaths. The spike in overdose deaths due to prescription opioids and heroin and more recently new synthetic opioids, has led to what is commonly called the opioid epidemic. The overprescribing of opioids by physicians and misleading marketing by major pharmaceutical companies are the root of the epidemic, while cheap and easily available heroin added fuel to the fire. The similarity between heroin and opioids encourages addicts to use these two drugs as alternatives for each other; when an opioid addict finds it difficult to receive a prescription for opioids, heroin can provide a cheap and accessible alternative. However, over the last few years illegally manufactured synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become the leading cause of overdose death in the United States.
Heroin use in the United States
Although death rates due to heroin overdose have decreased in recent years, heroin remains a problem in many regions of the United States. A recent survey from 2021 found almost 14 percent of individuals 12 years and older in the U.S. felt it was easy to obtain heroin. However, this is a slight improvement from just a few years earlier when in 2016 around 17.5 percent of people felt heroin was easy to obtain. Although the dangers of heroin use are well known, the number of people who consumed heroin in the past year has increased over the past decade, reaching a high of 1.1 million people in 2021. It is estimated that around 942 thousand adults aged 26 years and older in the United States are currently dependent on or abuse heroin.
An increase in overdose deaths in the last decade has been the main feauture of the opioid epidemic. In 2021, while the United States was still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 80,411 overdose deaths in the United States involving opioids, the highest number ever recorded. Opioid use is widespread across the United States, but disproportionately affects certain states, with the states of West Virginia, Delaware, and Tennessee currently reporting the highest death rates for opioid overdose. Although deaths due to heroin and prescription opioids have decreased in recent years, deaths from fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid, continue to increase. In 2021, fentanyl was involved in 70,601 overdose deaths in the United States.
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