In the last few decades, the drug overdose epidemic has worsened dramatically. The number of deaths from drug overdoses has skyrocketed, particularly among White people and people who live in rural areas. This aspect of the epidemic has gotten a lot of attention, because the rate has been increasing so quickly. However, it is not the whole story of the drug overdose epidemic.
A new NIH analysis of drug overdose deaths shows that the epidemic is huge and national, affecting people of all racial and ethnic groups, in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, and rates of drug overdose are rising among almost all groups. Most U.S. overdose deaths involve opioids, a group of drugs that includes illegal drugs like heroin and prescription pain medicines like oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on preliminary data showing a significant decline in prescription use-related deaths for the first time since 1990. However, deaths from other opioid use continue to rise.
Opioids bind to receptors on nerve cells in your body. The drugs block pain but can also slow your breathing and digestion. In an opioid overdose, your breathing and heartbeat can slow to a dangerously low rate. An overdose of a stimulant like cocaine or methamphetamines, on the other hand, speeds your heart rate and raises your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Drug overdoses were increasing very slowly through the 1980s but took off in the late 1990s as prescriptions for opioid pain medicines increased. A second wave of the epidemic began in 2010, when overdose deaths related to heroin started to increase among younger people, predominantly those ages 20 to 40. Meanwhile, several factors contributed to a reduction in overdose deaths related to opioid prescriptions; one study suggests that physicians were cutting back on opioid prescriptions because of worries about overdoses, and people who were already addicted to prescription opioids were switching to heroin.
There are multiple aspects to the issue of drug abuse, including genetic, environmental, social, and socioeconomic factors that contribute to this crisis. By funding research on the opioid crisis, NIMHD hopes to find out more about what is causing the drug overdose epidemic—and how to address it.
Read more on NIMHD.gov.