The Opioid Epidemic In The US: A Crisis We Can’t Ignore

The rise in easy access to pain pills like OxyContin® in the ’90s lit the fuse for the opioid epidemic, marking a surge in folks getting entangled, misusing, and tragically overdosing.

Even though it kicked off about three decades back, this opioid mess hasn’t let up, continuing to throw a spanner in the works for U.S. public health. Year after year, many people find themselves jobless, homeless, and isolated because of their opioid battles.

Diving deeper, let’s pull the curtain back on this epidemic’s current scene and brainstorm ways to put a dent in this colossal issue.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are drugs that doctors usually prescribe for significant pain that over-the-counter meds like ibuprofen just can’t handle.

Sure, they’re ace at battling pain, but opioids are like playing with fire. They can be super addictive, so they’re usually reserved for short bursts of pain relief.

Today, opioid addiction is a serious health concern. Around 3 million Americans and a staggering 16 million people globally are battling or have battled opioid use disorder (OUD).

Opioids come in different types based on their origins:

Natural: Often called opiates, these are derived from the opium poppy plant. Morphine and codeine are classic examples.

Semi-synthetic: Think oxycodone or hydromorphone; these are lab-created but start with a natural opioid base.

Synthetic: Fentanyl and methadone are wholly manufactured from chemicals without any natural base.

In a nutshell, opioids work by messing with the receptors in your central nervous system. This keeps your brain from getting your body’s “ouch” messages.

But there’s more to the opioid story. They can give you a feel-good high by triggering dopamine in your brain, another reason folks might get hooked. So, while they’re great at dulling pain, they also have a side of potential addiction.

Opioids Crisis in the U.S.

All opioids can be habit-forming, but some are more abused than others. Prescription opioids are equally addictive and risky as illicit ones.

The most commonly prescribed opioids in the 2020s were:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lortab®, Norco®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Oxaydo®)
  • Tramadol (Ultram®, ConZip®).

In 2020, about four Virginians died daily from opioid overdoses—a sad but small slice of the U.S. opioid crisis.

Many people quickly assumed that the main opioid issues come from illicit drugs like heroin. Here’s the kicker: Out of almost 81,000 opioid overdoses in 2021, just around 9,000 were due to heroin.

Surprisingly, as heroin-related deaths dip, fatalities from fentanyl and its synthetic relatives are rising.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention label this as the third wave of opioid fatalities. A spike in heroin-related fatalities marked the first mainly involved prescription opioids and the second.

Zooming into 2021, popular prescription pain meds like Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, and codeine took the cake for misuse among folks aged 12 and up. About 8.7 million fessed up to misusing them, and a whopping 77%—or nearly 6.6 million—were hooked on Hydrocodone or Oxycodone.

Causes of the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid crisis is a gnarly web with several contributing threads. Here are some main culprits:

Overprescribing of opioids by doctors: In the ’90s, pharma companies sold the dream that opioid painkillers were a safe bet for chronic pain. The result? A surge in prescriptions and, sadly, addiction rates.

Increased availability of illegal opioids: The underworld’s demand for opioids like heroin and fentanyl is skyrocketing, all thanks to digital drug markets and dodgy Mexican cartels.

Lack of access to treatment for opioid addiction: Loads of people addicted to opioids struggle to find adequate help, whether due to sky-high costs, no available beds, or the stigma of addiction hanging over their heads.

Social and economic factors: Things like poverty, joblessness, and emotional trauma also fuel the crisis, making it tough to escape the addiction cycle.

The Three Waves of Opioid Overdose Deaths

The U.S. opioid crisis has unfolded in three devastating acts, each worse than the last.

The First Wave: Prescription Opioids

Act one kicked off in the ’90s with prescription opioids flooding the market. Doctors handed them out like candy, and soon enough, addiction and overdose deaths were on the rise, lasting until the early 2010s.

The Second Wave: Heroin

Cue act two in 2010: enter heroin. Packing a stronger punch than prescription meds and often cheaper, heroin-fueled overdoses surged between 2010 and 2015.

The Third Wave: Synthetic Opioids

By 2013, act three had rolled around, starring fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. These super-charged drugs, often mixed with heroin, shot overdose rates through the roof.

In short, these three disastrous waves claimed over 93,000 lives in 2020 alone, making opioids the grim reaper for Americans under 50.

The Role of Other Drugs

Opioids aren’t the sole bad actors in this crisis; other drugs share the limelight.


This synthetic opioid packs a wallop, dwarfing even morphine in potency. Often mixed with heroin or other substances, a tiny bit can be lethal. It’s become a hot commodity for global drug dealers and a huge contributor to the overdose mess.


We’re talking about central nervous system recovers like meth and coke. These can be just as addictive and deadly. We’re seeing a spike in fatalities, especially those tied to meth.

Acknowledging these other culprits is key to crafting strategies that genuinely tackle the crisis.

How to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Facing the opioid mess needs all hands on deck. From lawmakers to docs, everyone’s got a part to play in cutting opioid exposure and promoting their wise use.

Some of the effective steps include:

  • Train healthcare providers on state rules for prescriptions, Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs), and best practices for opioid prescribing to curb abuse and overdoses.
  • Boost public know-how on alternative pain relief options, the dangers of opioids, and tips for safe storage and disposal.
  • Create secure drop-off points so unused meds don’t become someone else’s problem.
  • Ease the path to opioid addiction treatment for those misusing opioids by increasing accessibility to addiction services.
  • Lastly, throw a wrench in the works of illegal drug production and distribution.

In short, we’ve got to fight this crisis from all angles to turn the tide truly.

How You Can Help

The opioid crisis might seem overwhelming but don’t feel powerless. There’s plenty you can do.

You can help reduce the mess by:

Learn about the opioid epidemic: Start by educating yourself. The web’s awash in resources to get you involved in the opioid crisis.

Talk to your doctor: If you get prescribed opioids, grill your doctor about alternatives. There’s a whole menu of safer pain relief out there.

Join the local squad: Plenty of groups fight the good fight against opioid misuse. Volunteer or toss them some cash to help the cause.

Support organizations: Tons of organizations are tackling the epidemic head-on. A donation or some volunteered time goes a long way.

Even a drop in the bucket can create ripples. By stepping up, we can turn this crisis around.

Frequently Asked Questions

When did the opioid epidemic begin?

The opioid crisis kicked off in the U.S. in the '90s. Pharma companies pushed these painkillers as a safe cure for ongoing pain, causing a spike in prescriptions. Unfortunately, this led to widespread addiction.

Can you survive an overdose?

Yes, surviving an overdose is possible. Quick medical help boosts survival chances. If someone seems to be overdosing, dial 911 right away.

How do opioids affect breathing?

Opioids dampen your central nervous system, affecting brain function and breathing control. This results in slower, shallower breaths and could escalate to respiratory failure or even death.

Is overdosing on pills painful?

Pill overdoses affect people differently when it comes to pain. For some, it's just a bit uncomfortable, but others could experience severe pain in the chest, stomach, or arms and legs.

How long does an opioid stay in your system?

The duration an opioid sticks around in your system isn't straightforward—it hinges on the specific type, the dosage, and your body's processing speed. The duration can vary between a few days to several weeks.

What is the difference between an opiate and an opioid?

Opiates are natural compounds found in the opium poppy plant. Opioids, on the other hand, are either synthetic or partly synthetic, meaning they're artificial using various substances.

How long is rehab for opioid addiction?

How long you'll need to be in rehab for opioid addiction depends on your situation and how bad your addiction is. Generally, most folks stay in rehab between 30 and 90 days.

What are mercy opioid initiatives?

Mercy's efforts to tackle the opioid crisis come from various programs and guidelines. These measures zero in on stopping the problem before it starts, getting folks the help they need, and aiding their recovery journey.

How long do opioid withdrawals last?

How long you'll feel withdrawal symptoms from opioids isn't a one-size-fits-all deal, but usually, it's about a week to 10 days. Mind you, some folks might be dealing with it for up to two weeks.

What is the most addictive opioid?

Fentanyl takes the cake for being the most addictive opioid out there. It's a man-made opioid that packs a way bigger punch than morphine. Often mixed with heroin or other stuff, even a tiny amount can be lethal.

Final Thoughts

The opioid crisis is a tangled web, but teamwork can unravel it. By cracking the whys behind the epidemic, we pave the way for real solutions.

We can nip this nightmare in the bud by pitching in on prevention. And by boosting groups on the frontline, we change lives for the better. Together, we can be the difference-makers.

Read next: How Many Poppy Seeds To Test Positive For Opiates?