Overprescribed and frequently abused, prescription painkillers are gateways to heroin for growing numbers of people. As doctors write more prescriptions for painkillers, the number of heroin overdoses rises concurrently. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), drug overdose is the leading cause of death due to injury in the United States, claiming 100 lives every day.
The demographics of heroin use have also changed. Heroin is no longer the drug of choice for young men in low income neighborhoods. Today, the drug is more widely used in poor, rural areas, as well as affluent suburbs.
Many people who take prescription painkillers are under the illusion that because they are prescribed by physicians, the drugs are safer than heroin purchased on the street. What people don’t always realize is that while prescription drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone are legal, the effect on the brain is no different than heroin, and the potential for abuse and overdose are the same.
Many people receive prescriptions legitimately after an injury or surgical procedure, but the drugs are highly addictive. Tolerance develops quickly and more of the drug is needed to attain the same high. NIDA (The National Institute for Abuse) estimates that one in 15 people who take prescription pain meds for non-medical uses will use heroin within 10 years.
Doctors, who are very busy and thus not aware of the latest research about screening for addiction risk, tend to over-prescribe, and by writing these prescriptions, they provide fuel for potential drug abuse. The switch to heroin often occurs after a physician recognizes a problem exists and no longer provides the medicine to support a growing addiction. Some people turn to illegal sources to purchase pain pills, and many eventually discover that heroin is much cheaper and easier to find.
Other people develop an addiction early on, after experimenting with medicines they find in their parents’ medicine cabinets.
Withdrawal from heroin often involves loss of appetite, runny nose, anxiety, panic, fever, chills, insomnia, muscle cramps, and an increase in blood pressure and respiratory rate. The good news is that hospitals and drug treatment centers can provide drugs that greatly decrease the length and severity of detox. With heroin addiction treatment in the form of counseling, education and a variety of effective nutritional supplement therapies, addicted people can be free of heroin and return to healthier, substance-free lives.
Overdose is a far greater danger. Although people use the drug for the euphoria and pleasant drowsy feelings, taking too much can cause slowed breathing that leads to respiratory failure and death. Early signs that a person may be in the process of overdose include pinpoint pupils, shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions or seizures, vomiting, and finally, a coma.