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The Heroin and Opioid Epidemic: What You Need to Know

Addiction to heroin and other opioids is hitting epidemic proportions. It is arguably the single biggest drug crisis facing the world today. In addition to being highly addictive in a physical sense, it is easy to overdose, resulting in widespread death, both in chronic and occasional users.

These days, the opioid crisis is front-page news. With historically high street drug potency, we are seeing more and more unfortunate episodes – even the addicts are afraid of what might be laced into their fix – and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. With such high risk involved at every level, you might wonder why anybody would put themselves in harm’s way, but when you’re addicted to opioids, it’s not easy to see the way through.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are derived from a type of poppy: Papaver Somniferum. P. Somniferum is a flower that is native to the Middle East and Asia but is cultivated all over the world, including right here in America. Opium is the raw material that is harvested from these plants, which is then synthesized into morphine and heroin. From there, it is further processed into hundreds of different compounds, most of which are bound for the pharmaceutical market, but from which a good amount is skimmed off for the black market drug trade.

Some of the end products include:

  • Morphine
  • Heroin
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)
  • Methadone

Opioids are a highly regulated class of drugs at the prescription level, and depending on the formulation, may require a triplicate prescription. They are prescribed for a range of complaints, but most often are indicated for acute pain. They can also be prescribed for a severe cough, diarrhea, and some are even be used to help addicts wean themselves from an addictive dose.

Opioids On the Street

Street opioids continue to plummet in price and rise in potency. This is creating a massive epidemic of addiction amongst our youth, and as a result of this, death from overdose is at its highest level in the past two decades.

On the street, it is possible to obtain prescription opioids as well as more crudely synthesized forms, such as heroin, which may be available as “black tar”, a sticky brown-black goo that can be smoked or injected, or as a highly concentrated refined powder. The latter is the most concerning of late, as much street heroin in powdered form has been found to be laced with Fentanyl or Carfentanil, a super-concentrated painkiller that is hundreds of times more powerful than morphine. Carfentanil is actually a veterinary-grade painkiller intended for large animals like elephants, so you can imagine how much more powerful it can be – even a microscopic dose can be deadly to a human, even one with a high tolerance. The unfortunate prevalence of Carfentanil-laced street opioids is epitomized by the growing number of overdose deaths, and it would seem that no addict who buys their drugs on the street is exempt.

Opioid Painkillers are Vital to a Small Percentage of Patients

Regardless of what they are prescribed for, each type of opioid is equally addictive as the next. Doctors will not often prescribe them for long periods of time, but for individuals who suffer from severe chronic pain or cancer, they may be indicated for long-term treatment. In this scenario, the doctor has usually decided that the benefits far outweigh the risks, such as if the pain is too intense otherwise, or if the patient has late-stage cancer and is not expected to survive.

For these patients, the benefits are such that the drugs enable them to regain a certain quality of life, allowing them to do things they would not normally be able to do otherwise. The addiction is treated as an issue that is secondary to the prevailing complaint and is often overlooked as long as it is accepted that the patient is in compliance with prescribed dosages, and not abusing the drug.

Feeling Better, Numbing the Pain

Opioids are the embodiment of physical addiction. Once addicted, the body must have more, and the symptoms the addict experiences when going without are absolutely unbearable.

Simply put, opioids make people with severe pain feel better. But this action is also what starts the process of the body becoming addicted, and recreational users are just as susceptible, if not even more so.

Opioids are very strong medications that target the pain receptors in the brain, lending a euphoric feeling and easing discomfort. It is this intense euphoria that so attracts young addicts: it’s a warm, enveloping feeling that life is good, there is no pain, and everything is wonderful. For children who are facing troubles at home or at school, this can make the high that much more attractive.

Young people who are experimenting with drugs as an escape are particularly susceptible to the lure of opioids, as it gives them a sense that they don’t have a care in the world. The unfortunate eventuality is that it will soon wear off, and to get that feeling again, they will need to find more. Thus begins a vicious cycle that can escalate over time until the individual is addicted.

Opioid Addiction Doesn’t Happen Instantly

You can’t become physically addicted after just one dose. However, for many addicts, it only takes one dose for them to decide that this is their drug of choice. The speed at which the drug can take hold depends much on the method of delivery: ingesting pills, smoking or snorting, or injection. Injection is not often the first way that opioids are experienced, but it is often where it is headed, as injecting gives the user a more intense high with a faster, rushing onset that is addictive in and of itself.

Young people could be introduced to opioids in many ways:

  1. Purchasing pills or a synthesized form of the drug off the street
  2. Stealing prescription drugs from a parent or relative
  3. Being introduced to the drug through a dealer
  4. Being prescribed narcotic pain or cough medication by a doctor
  5. Finding an attraction to certain people in history or in the public sphere who were addicted to heroin (and most often died from it)

For impressionable and troubled youth especially, the latter scenario is most concerning.

Some young people may come to opioids because they are a fan of a musician, an artist, or a writer who was famously addicted, and who purportedly created their most pivotal work while “under the influence”. In this sense, it may be seen as “cool” or “what a rock star does”, their death is seen as holding a certain glory.

This is a dangerous game and a slippery slope, as too great a fascination with these details can result in death, or if they manage to escape death, permanent brain or nerve damage, or the start of a lifelong, enslaving addiction. In any case, there is no coming back. Even if the individual were to survive, the way the drug ravages the system is permanent, often damaging pain and pleasure receptors beyond the body’s ability to self-heal.

There is No Glory to Heroin Addiction

Once the body is addicted to opioids, it craves more. These cravings take many forms and can vary in severity depending on how great the addiction is. The longer the abuse has continued, the more drug the addict will need, and the greater the severity of the symptoms.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:

  • Agitation – starting mild but becoming more severe
  • Pain
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Muscle cramping
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cold sweats
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Feelings of desperation and despair
  • Uncontrollable twitching of outer extremities (the “kick”)
  • Inability to sleep or calm down

These symptoms can be so intense that the addict is compelled to seek more of the drug. This can lead to dangerous and often illegal behavior, including robbery and theft, either of money, goods they can sell to get money for drugs, or stealing the drugs themselves (from a family member, friend, dealer, or drug store), and prostitution.

What to Do if You Think You or Your Child is Addicted to Opioids

If you think that your child isn’t capable of any one of those scenarios, you have no idea what opioid addiction can do. If any of these things are happening to you or your child, you need to seek help right away. How quickly you can get your child into a rehab and detox program could mean the difference between life and death.

Do Not Take Matters Into Your Own Hands

You must realize that this is not a situation where simply removing the stimuli (the drugs or the environment) is the answer. The physical withdrawal is so pronounced that it requires medical intervention in order to be both effective and safe.

Get Them Into Treatment as Soon as Possible

Above all, if they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it is imperative that they get into treatment as soon as possible. Call Peaks Recovery, and speak to the admissions director to find out what you can do right now.

Peaks Recovery Centers in Colorado Springs, CO

If you suspect your child or loved one is addicted to opioids of any kind, call Peaks Recovery Centers to find out what you can do. Getting them into a recovery program may just save their life, helping them to recover safely from their opioid addiction and also giving them the tools they need to go forward into a drug-free future. Call today to find out more.