The opioid epidemic is ravaging our country and claiming dozens of lives every day. But the mass victims of this tragedy aren’t who you’d suspect them to be. The opioid epidemic is striking across all boundaries: socioeconomic, geographic, race, age, and gender. No one is immune to the addictive power of opioids. There is one particular group, however, being hit harder than the rest.
And it may be the last group you’d ever suspect.
America’s Mothers, Wives, and Daughters are in Danger
More than 18 women in America died of a prescription overdose today. Between 1999 and 2010, prescription overdose deaths among women increased 400%. That’s nearly twice the rate of overdose deaths among men.
Why are women in our country getting addicted to these prescription drugs at such an astounding rate?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer time periods than men. And women may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men, as well.
Women like Karen.
Karen’s Story: A Journey from Pain to a Prescription for Addiction
Karen had been experiencing muscle aches, pain, and fatigue for months without relief. Even sleeping was painful. After multiple doctor visits and tests, she finally received a diagnosis: fibromyalgia.
Karen was not alone in this diagnosis: an estimated 5 million adult Americans suffer from fibromyalgia – a disorder that causes widespread pain throughout the body. Women are hit hardest by this chronic pain disorder; 90% of fibro patients are women.
Karen was referred to a pain management specialist and received her first prescription for Oxycontin, a powerful opioid painkiller.
The prescription was life-changing for Karen.
For the first time in months she felt like her old self. The prescription worked, and she was able to get back to her normal routine, pain-free. In fact, she felt even better than before; the medicine made Karen feel energized, calm, and happy.
Her husband and children were thrilled to see Karen smiling, laughing, and enjoying herself again.
A few weeks after she started taking Oxycontin, Karen was unable to take a dose of her medicine. She had run into a friend while dropping her son off at school, and the two had decided on an impromptu lunch date. Karen’s prescription was left at home.
She tried to hide her discomfort during her lunch with her friend, but Karen’s pain was back in full force. To make matters worse, she also felt nauseous, cold, sweaty, and anxious - almost like she was coming down with the flu.
When she returned home, Karen decided to take two pills to help her handle the increased pain and overall uneasy discomfort she felt after missing her prescribed dose.
As her double-dose of medication kicked in, Karen felt euphoric. She was floating in a state of pure, calm joy. As the days went by, Karen found herself compelled to double her dose more and more often simply to experience that feeling again.
Karen never expected that she would become dependant on opioids. But like so many other women, a prescription she genuinely needed was the catalyst that launched her into the throes of one of the most widespread and deadly addictions in America.
Women Addicted: The Consequences of Opioid Use
Pain medications are some of the most commonly used drugs in the US. Opioid pain relievers are often prescribed for post-surgery recovery, back pain, injuries, and chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Each year, enough opioid prescriptions are written for every adult American to have their own bottle of pain pills.
The consequences of opioid use are not harmless. The short- and long-term effects of opioid use can range from nausea, dizziness, and vomiting to more serious effects, such as physical dependence, addiction, respiratory depression, and even death.
Over time, your body becomes desensitized to the effects of opioids. In order to achieve the initial pain-relieving effects, it is necessary to continually increase your dosage. Lessening or suddenly stopping opioid use can trigger physical withdrawal symptoms that can be very unpleasant, such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, and anxiety.
Opioid use not only relieves the perception of pain, it also can trigger feel-good feelings of euphoria and calm. When a patient uses an opioid in a way other than prescribed – like increasing a dose or shortening the time between doses – in order to experience these effects, it is considered opioid abuse.
Opioids come with a very high risk of addiction, mainly because of the way they work in the brain. Opioids affect the area of the brain associated with the “rewards system.” The brain associates opioid use as an action that equals pleasurable results and seeks to repeat that action. At the same time, the brain also is wired to avoid unpleasant actions, such as the discomfort and increased pain that can come with opioid withdrawal.
Not everyone who will use opioids will become addicted, but it’s estimated that nearly one out of every four opioid users is at risk of becoming dependent or addicted.
Heroin and Fentanyl Use
Heroin overdoses among women have tripled in the last few years. As prescription opioids get more expensive or harder to access, the lure of illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl calls to many people suffering from addiction.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has been pouring into America from other countries. This powerful drug is being pressed into counterfeit pills and sold on the streets as Oxycontin and Vicodin to unknowing users. Fentanyl is also being passed off as other drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
The problem with Fentanyl is its potency: the drug is 30-40x more potent than heroin, and 100x more potent than morphine. A single dose can lead to an opioid overdose within seconds.
Women who are desperate to avoid withdrawal symptoms, out of options for refilling their prescriptions, and willing to gamble on opioids and other drugs purchased on the street are risking their lives – powerless to fight an addiction that began innocently enough as a legitimate prescription for pain relief.
Overdose and Death
Opioids affect the area of the brain that controls the respiratory system, and often kill by slowing or stopping your ability to breathe. The more powerful the dose, the more at risk you are of respiratory depression and overdose death. Combining opioids with alcohol, sedatives, or other drugs can increase this risk even further.
Not all opioid overdoses are fatal. If an overdose is caught in time and life support and Naloxone (an antidote to opioid overdose) is administered in time, a fatal overdose may be avoided.
The signs of opioid overdose include:
- pinpoint pupils
- respiratory depression (breathing that is slowed, labored, or stopped)
Unfortunately for some women, a prescription for pain can lead down a horrifying road to addiction, overdose, or death.
Shocking: The Most Vulnerable Victims of the Opioid Epidemic
Among the women in America being affected by opioid crisis, one surprising group of women has emerged as one of the most heart-wrenching of all: pregnant women
Between 2000 and 2009, the rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased by almost 300% as an increasing amount of pregnant women abused prescription pain relievers.
NAS is a group of conditions which occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive opioid drugs while in the mother’s womb.
Opioids pass from a mother’s bloodstream into the placenta, resulting in her baby becoming physically dependent on the drug alongside the mother.
When a baby is born addicted to opioids, it begins to experience physical withdrawal symptoms soon after birth. Symptoms of NAS include:
- Blotchy skin coloring (mottling)
- Excessive or high-pitched crying
- Excessive sucking
- Hyperactive reflexes
- Tight muscle tone
- Poor feeding
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep problems
- Slow weight gain
- Stuffy nose, sneezing
- Trembling (tremors)
Extended hospital stays and medical treatment can often help NAS babies to overcome their ordeal. They may experience lingering effects, including slow growth and problems with feeding.
Unfortunately for others, the results can be more severe, such as permanent birth defects or even death.
The most shocking part of the increased rates of NAS is that many of these mothers are being prescribed opioids from medical professionals while pregnant.
In the US, an estimated 14.4% of pregnant women are prescribed an opioid during their pregnancy.
Mothers. Daughters. Sisters. Even newborn babies. As the opioid crisis sweeps through America, it claims its victims from every walk of life.
As more and more prescriptions for opioids fill medicine cabinets in homes across the country, the risk of addiction and overdose increases. And it’s going to take an ever increasing amount of awareness, prevention, and policy to save our daughters from this deadly epidemic.
Want to learn more about the opioid epidemic?
Read our blog: America’s Opioid Epidemic, and sign up for our newsletter (below) for more information and ideas for ways you can help turn the tide of this tragic crisis.