Drug overdoses are on the rise in America, but why is it happening?

On I-495 at mile marker 44 in the County of Fairfax, motorists can expect potential delays due to a disabled vehicle. The north right shoulder is closed.

In 2017, America saw its sharpest rise in drug overdoses to date. While cocaine was once the leading cause of overdose deaths, today it’s opioids. Substances such as Fentanyl and OxyContin have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The number of people dying accounts for more deaths than HIV, car crashes, and gun violence combined.

Disturbingly, the 70,000 deaths due to drug overdoses in 2017 had a statistical effect on America’s life expectancy rate. It dropped by four months, following a 45-percent increase in Fentanyl-related deaths in 2017 alone. But why such a sudden increase? And what is being done to stop it?

Why was 2017 the year when drug overdoses saw such a rapid rise?

Although fewer doctors are prescribing opioids as a form of pain relief, the number of deaths is rising. It may be worth considering that those who have an addiction face the following challenges in lieu of a controlled prescription:

  • They don’t have the right support for controlling their addiction.
  • As a result of the above, they’re acquiring street versions of opioid medications.

Unlike prescription opioids, the synthetic versions suffer from uncontrolled dosing. While it’s never wise to take too much OxyContin, for example, the harms are far greater when someone purchases an uncontrolled version of a drug. While an accidental OxyContin overdose may be easily addressed with drugs such as Naloxone, even a slight increase in a street alternative could rapidly result in fatal consequences.

It’s difficult to estimate how strong synthetic opioids are

Not only is it difficult to estimate how strong synthetic opioids are, some drug users don’t know they’re taking them. In recent years, it’s emerged that a lot of what people believe is heroin is actually fentanyl. If a user who is used to a certain heroin ‘dose’ then injects the same levels of poorly made fentanyl, their risk of dying due to injecting drugs becomes much higher.

Where in the United States is this happening?

Traditionally, drug overdoses have risen in certain areas. The ease of access in urban settings means more people will inject opioids illegally, leading to worse statistics. Additionally, social issues such as poverty make drug abuse more likely.

Last year, however, the number of deaths came with a different distribution. Rural areas saw an increase, people were no longer dying in primarily socially deprived areas, and deaths were more likely to occur in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West states.

It’s believed that the unusual distribution of deaths has been influenced by geography. In Western states, those selling heroin usually are selling heroin. In other words, it’s less likely that Fentanyl is in there. Therefore, while the substance remains harmful, it’s less likely to be dangerous to the point where death becomes likely.

What is being done to reduce drug overdoses?

An early analysis from the CDC has highlighted how the numbers are plateauing. Given how high they are, this isn’t entirely reassuring.

Efforts to reduce drug overdoses are occurring nationally and locally. President Trump has signed legislation that encourages pharmaceutical companies to manufacture non-addictive pain relief. Although this may prevent people with new pain conditions from forming an addiction, it doesn’t address those who are already addicted. Their addiction doesn’t centralize around pain; it’s more complex than that.

In Montgomery County, Dayton, Ohio, there’s been a 54-percent decline in drug overdoses. It’s likely that Governor John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid has given those who suffer from addiction more opportunities to seek medical care. As a result of his efforts, care providers offering safe withdrawal programs have flocked to Dayton. With Methadone, Naltrexone, and Buprenorphine forming a significant part of their treatment plans, addicts are able to bridge the gap between addiction and recovery.

To see a significant improvement, those who shape policies need to insist on preventative measures. Promoting non-addictive pain relief development is a positive step forward. At the same time, those who won’t benefit from such practices need a safety net too. It’s unlikely that drug overdoses will be avoided in their entirety, but it is possible to dip below 2017’s figures.



About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.