The epidemic of drug overdoses is on the rise and no drug is a greater threat right now than heroin. Even as heroin related deaths are on the rise, the use of the drug is not slowing down.
In some areas, there are as many as 6 deaths a day and 20 deaths per day in the country combined. The question is how did it get to be this bad and how do we fix it?
Heroin Is Not A Party Drug
To so many bystanders, drugs like heroin are associated with the party life. It is a drug done by movie stars and music legends as they go from party to party living a lavish life style. That’s simply not true.
In reality, most heroin users move to the drug after becoming addicted to opiate painkillers that had been prescribed to them. When their prescriptions ran out they found the $50 street value of those same pills to be too much. It was easier to switch to a $10 dose of heroin.
The number of opiate painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. has sky rocketed from 75 million in 1991 to over 200 million in 2013. Although many doctors are trying to correct the situation by shortening the length of the prescriptions or finding alternative medicines, the damage has been done.
In a study released by the CDC, heroin use has increased 62.5% since 2004.
Relapse Can Equal Death
As many people who have fought addiction will tell you, quitting is easy. Not going back to it is the hard part. As a person becomes addicted, whether to heroin or any other addictive substance, they slowly build up a tolerance for it. When they quit their body’s tolerance diminishes thereby requiring a lesser amount for the same high.
Unfortunately, someone in the process of falling off the wagon isn’t thinking about how their body has changed. Their only focus is getting high. When they jump back in at their old dose it’s too much for their body to handle and they die of a heroin overdose.
Why is it So Hard to Quit Using Heroin?
When someone decides to quit using any addictive substance, they will go through a period of withdraw. This can be painful and debilitating. Once the time of withdrawal ends the pain lessens but the cravings do not. The cravings of an addict are similar to the pain someone feels when they hold their breathe too long. The need to breathe is overwhelming and we gasp for breath.
The craving a heroin addict feels is very similar to that pain. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple for them as taking a gulp of air. They need the shot to make the pain go away. Every day is a struggle for a recovering addict to win the battle over their mind and convince themselves that they can make it through the day without it.
Many recovering addicts relapse because of a life set back, such as an ended relationship, money trouble or not being able to find a job. The depression and anxiety that comes as a result of these setbacks is enough to put a user right back where they started.
It’s Not Heroin Alone
Not all overdose deaths are due to failed recovery. Many are related to mixing other drugs with heroin, such as cocaine or excessive drinking. It’s not uncommon for addicts to use multiple substances at once. When a user takes a full dose of heroin along with a full dose of any other substance, their body becomes overloaded and can’t handle the added drugs.
In recent years, Fentanyl has been added to heroin to “supercharge” it and make it more potent. Many users are unaware when heroin has been laced with Fentanyl and it’s too much for them to handle and they overdose immediately.
In 2013 59% of heroin overdose deaths involved at least one other drug. Statistics show that people are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin if they are already addicted to opioid painkillers, 15 times more like if they are already addicted to cocaine and 2 times more likely if they are addicted to alcohol.
How Does Heroin Kill?
The simple answer to this question is that the body forgets to breathe. Heroin makes the user tired. The body’s natural response to sleep is for the respiratory system to slow down but instinctively continues to breathe. On heroin the user can enter such a deep sleep that the body essentially forgets to take a breath.
Heroin can also cause blood pressure to drop which causes the heart to fail. While there are other ways in which heroin can kill, complications involving lack of oxygen and decreased blood flow seem to be the most common.
Television likes to dramatize heroin overdose deaths by showing the user lifeless with a needle in their arm. This type of instantaneous death is actually rare and accounts for only about 14% of overdose deaths.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Many people are shocked to find out that heroin overdoses are completely preventable. A rescue drug called Narcan (Naloxone) is available as an injection or nasal spray and when administered, it essentially kicks the drug out of the user’s brain and saves their life.
So if it’s that easy to stop these deaths why isn’t it happening? Fear. Fear is the reason people are not getting the life saving help they need. In most cases, police officers and hospitals have Narcan on hand but users will not call them for fear of being arrested.
Many state laws are clear, that once the drug has been administered and the person is stable, they can be arrested for drug possession.
There is a bit of hope, though. In a few cities, community-based programs are popping up to teach family and friends how to administer Narcan. This increases the number of lives that can be saved without letting the fear of police or arrest stand in the way.
The issue of drugs, especially heroin, isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The best we as a society can do is help those in need and support anyone we know going through the recovery process. It’s a long hard road for anyone fighting addiction. Learn how to administer Narcan and be willing to save and support someone in their fight to live a drug free life.
Alo House is LegitScript Certified and a Joint Commission Accredited Addiction Treatment Center.
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