Most Painkiller Abusers Unprepared for Overdose

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 12 million people reported abusing prescription painkillers in 2010 and it’s safe to say that number has risen substantially over the last four years. While the rampant abuse of these opiate pain medications is concerning, it appears the users’ unpreparedness for the risk of overdose is costing precious lives.

Opiate painkillers like Oxycontin or Vicodin do much more than dull the sensation of pain; they also slow breathing. In fact, the drugs can slow respirations so severely that the user stops breathing altogether, oftentimes causing death. Despite the recent push to promote and provide naloxone, a medication that reverses the opiate’s effects, a new study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that most abusers simply aren’t prepared for an overdose situation.

…when it comes to how to handle an overdose, prescription opioid users who weren’t using drugs for official medical reasons were less savvy than, say, more traditional heroin-using populations.-David Frank, Study Author

“What we found is that, when it comes to how to handle an overdose, prescription opioid users who weren’t using drugs for official medical reasons were less savvy than, say, more traditional heroin-using populations,” said study author David Frank, a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

Frank goes on to say that, as far as overdosing is concerned, prescription opiate abusers tend “to have a pretty severe lack of knowledge and a lot of confusion about it, despite the fact that most have experienced overdoses within their drug-using network.”

Is it the Stigma?One theory for this unpreparedness is linked to social stigma. Specifically, prescription painkiller addicts don’t want to be confused with heroin addicts.

“Opioid users tend to be whiter, younger and come from a higher socioeconomic background. And even though opiates and heroin are pharmacologically similar, work by the same mechanism and can both cause an overdose, even daily opioid users seem to think that simply because they’re taking a doctor-prescribed medicine they’re not doing a dangerous drug,” according to Frank.

According to Jack Stein, director of the office of science policy and communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this stigma has “prevented those who become addicted to prescription opioids from recognizing their abuse as similar to, and equally dangerous as, heroin abuse.”

Here’s the Shocking Reality

To evaluate the “overdose knowledge” of average painkiller abusers, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 46 users, all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 32. Approximately three-quarters of the participants were white, half had at least some college education and nine were college graduates. All were residents of New York City, where opiate overdoses have skyrocketed in the last decade.

What the researchers found was that these participants generally perceived the opiate painkillers to be simple medications that were “less addictive than heroin, and less likely to prompt an overdose.” What’s more, the majority of those interviewed went on to say that they had no knowledge of an overdose prevention plan or how to handle the life-threatening emergency, should it happen to them or a loved one.

And yet, when asked about prescription painkiller overdoses, nearly all of the participants admitted to knowing someone who had experienced either a fatal or non-fatal overdose – or they had personally experienced an overdose.

A Lack of Naloxone Knowledge

Though the majority of participants were unfamiliar with naloxone, there were a few who admitted they were familiar with the OD antidote. Again, the misinformation and general lack of knowledge about this drug is surprising.

…there was a common belief among these participants that naloxone is an expensive drug – one they simply couldn’t afford to invest in.

According to researchers, there was a common belief among these participants that naloxone is an expensive drug – one they simply couldn’t afford to invest in. Additionally, many participants believed it was too hard to get a prescription for this life-saving medication. However, in the state of New York, naloxone is now distributed free of charge at most needle exchange or harm reduction programs.

Once again, stigma reared its ugly head, preventing many of these participants from seeking out naloxone. Respondents said that these programs and/or needle exchanges focused solely on heroin addiction and, since they were not abusing a “street” drug, they did not feel comfortable frequenting such facilities.

What Can Be Done?After evaluating the data, researchers came to the conclusion that there is a huge void among prescription narcotics abusers – one that needs immediate attention. They suggest there is a “pressing need to fashion outreach programs that better address their unique concerns and perceptions.”

The task at hand is to reach the people who abuse opiate painkillers and teach them that there are some very real – and very deadly – consequences that come with abusing these prescription medications. There are no do-overs in death. Once they understand that having a simple vial of naloxone on hand can literally mean the difference between living and dying, it’s worth it to brush the stigmas aside and pay attention.

Related: 9 Common Questions About a Drug That Saves Lives

Images: Instagram/Flickr

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