Opioid prescriptions have increased three-fold over the past two decades, and we have seen how this skyrocketing availability of medications has helped create a new drug abusing population, some of whom suffer severe health consequences. More deaths now occur as a result of overdosing on prescription opioids than from all other drug overdoses combined, including heroin and cocaine. The opioid epidemic is tied closely to another epidemic in our country, that of chronic pain—although the ties are very complex.
Combating the epidemic of opioid abuse—including prescription painkillers and, increasingly, heroin—requires a multi-pronged approach that involves reducing drug diversion, expanding delivery of existing treatments (including medication-assisted treatments), and development of new medications for pain that can augment our existing treatment arsenal. But another crucial component we must not forget is that people who abuse or are addicted to opioids need to be kept alive long enough that they can be treated successfully. In this, the drug naloxone has a large potential role to play.
This past weekend Americans were shocked and saddened to learn that one of our greatest actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, had died at age 46 of an apparent heroin overdose. Hoffman’s death, in the prime of his life and career, is a poignant reminder of some of the harsh realities of a disease that 17.7 million Americans struggle with and that all too often cuts their lives short.
Researchers found that 1 in 8 high school seniors had used a prescription opioid nonmedically, and 70 percent of these teens had compounded the attendant risk by co-ingesting an opioid with one or more other drugs. Nonmedical opioid use was significantly more prevalent among whites than among African Americans or Hispanics.
A new vaccine hindered the often-abused prescription opioids oxycodone and hydrocodone from entering the brain and suppressed one of the drugs’ signature central nervous system effects. The findings warrant continued development of the vaccine as a potential aid in the treatment of oxycodone and hydrocodone abuse and dependence.
People who use prescription opiates nonmedically are more likely to consider suicide than those who use these medications only appropriately or not at all. A recent NIDA-supported study also disclosed that the risk for suicidal thoughts remains elevated after cessation of use.