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Common Questions About Opioids

spinner image Opioid USA Map, AARP
Gregory Reid

What are opioids?

Opioids are powerful drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain. Traditionally these drugs have been used by people who are recovering from surgery or coping with highly painful diseases or injuries. Opioids are narcotics, meaning they affect your mood or behavior and can cause drowsiness. They work by attaching to receptors in the brain and other areas of the body, inhibiting the transmission of pain signals. Opioids can also create a sense of euphoria, and they are highly addictive.

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Are opioids related to opium?

Modern factory-produced opioids are only slightly different in chemical makeup from opiates derived from opium poppy flowers. The mood-altering effects of opium have been known for centuries.

Why are people calling this an epidemic?

Prescription opioids were initially administered primarily for short-term bouts of pain. But starting in the 1990s, doctors began to prescribe them more to treat chronic pain. Long-term use led to higher levels of addiction and overdoses among wide swaths of the population: Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths that were attributed to opioid misuse has quadrupled. About half of those deaths in 2015 were from prescription opioid drugs.

Why are we hearing about a connection to heroin?

Heroin is an opioid that is two to three times more powerful than morphine. Because opioid users tend to build up a tolerance to their prescription drug, they seek more potent forms to feed their addiction. In some cases, this has led addicts to heroin; the illegal recreational drug is a relatively cheap source of an opioid high, especially as prescription drugs become harder to obtain. And the mass addiction is fueling more dangerous forms of heroin. In a recent trend, heroin has been laced with carfentanil, a drug that is 100 times stronger than the opioid fentanyl; the primary use of carfentanil is to sedate elephants.

How are officials responding to the crisis?

The Department of Health and Human Services is administering nearly a billion dollars in grants over the next two years to states and territories for prevention programs, treatment and training for health professionals. Meanwhile, 46 states now have caps on the quantity of opioid drugs that a Medicaid patient can receive, and 42 states have established medical criteria that a person must meet before getting a prescription through Medicaid. President Trump has created a commission on drug addiction, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to study the issue. And Congress passed legislation in 2016 to aid those struggling with pain and addiction.

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Nicolas Rapp, AARP Bulletin

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