Opioid Epidemic in the United States – Causes, Impact, and Response

The opioid crisis in America is the deadliest drug epidemic that has taken people’s lives for more than two decades. More than 111,000 people died from a drug overdose only in 2023, which exceeds the number of victims of car crashes and gunshots in the United States.

The Opioid Epidemic in the United States

What Drugs Are Considered as Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs made with opium or its synthetic and semisynthetic analogs.

They interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioids reduce pain and boost the feeling of pleasure, making people feel high. That’s why opioids are powerful painkillers but also extremely addictive.

The Most Commonly Used Opioid Medications:

  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Tramadol
  • Methadone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Buprenorphine

Different types of opioids have been used in medicine for ages to alleviate the suffering of patients. After the First World War, the scientific community sounded the alarm because of the addiction to opioids among injured soldiers. From that time on, they were prescribed rarely and for the short-term, mainly to relieve the last days of palliative patients and after surgeries or severe traumas.

When Did the Opioid Epidemic Begin?

The issue treks us to the unprecedented commercial success of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. In the 90s it started to produce Oxycontin – the painkiller based on the synthetic opioid oxycodone. Its aggressive advertising campaign targeted doctors and said that Oxycontin is less addictive or nonaddictive at all in comparison to Morphin.

As a result, doctors started to prescribe Oxycontin as a usual analgesic for patients with any kind of pain – from migraines to arthritis. Over the next decade, Purdue Pharma earned $35 billion on Oxycontin, and tens of thousands of people became drug addicts. And for many, it started with peals grooving into heroin, cocaine, or fentanyl addiction. 75% of people who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, claimed that their first opioid was a prescription drug. This is how the opioid crisis started.

Four Waves of the Opioid Epidemic

  1. Rise in prescription overdose deaths in early 2000, CDC research.
  2. The rise in heroin overdose deaths started in 2010. This year, public health systems took steps to rein in the prescribing of opioid painkillers, and patients switched to illicit drugs, which are cheaper and easier to get.
  3. Rise in synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2013. Synthetic fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, which highly increases the risk of fatal and nonfatal overdoses.
  4. Rise in synthetic opioids with different stimulants in 2015. Cocktails from fentanyl, methamphetamine, and a fast-changing mix of new chemicals have unpredictable effects on the human body, and the number of deaths has increased sharply.

Is It Getting Better?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the situation became even more severe steam from the overwhelmed public health system.

Unfortunately, scientists claim that the pick of the opioid epidemic is yet to come. In 2021, more than 106,000 persons died from drug-involved overdoses from illicit drugs and prescription opioids. In 2023, the number of victims peaked above 112,000 deaths, and in 2024, it keeps a rising tendency.

What Can Be Done?

The opioid crisis is a public health issue on a national scale. Prevention of overdose deaths involves control and coordination at the federal, state, and local levels.

But the main thing every single person should do is to stop stigmatizing drug addicts. It’s not what happened only with weak people and everyone deserves understanding, treatment, and a second chance.

First of all, you should try to talk frankly with the drug addict in a calm environment, discuss the problems that have arisen, not blame him or her, and not provoke to feel guilty.

There is a wide network of rehabs all over the country where opioid overdose treatment is provided. There drug addicts can obtain psychological and medical treatments, such as Methadone replacement therapy (MMT). It is a type of treatment for opioid addiction that uses opioid agonists — substances that have a similar effect on the brain as heroin and morphine to help prevent withdrawal symptoms and block cravings for illicit opioids. Contact the nearest methadone clinic to find help.