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Understanding and Combatting the Ongoing Overdose Epidemic

The current situation regarding overdoses in the United States is drastic and only worsening as time goes on. The Centers for Disease Control states that drug overdose deaths have quadrupled in the United States since 1999. In recent years, over 70% of these deaths are caused by an opioid with an increasing amount being due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Continue reading for an overview of the situation to learn how we can combat this deadly trend in our communities.


Stop Overdoses

The Three Waves of Overdose Deaths

There are three identified waves of overdoses that have been identified since the 1990’s. The first wave was linked to the massive increase in opioid pain medication prescriptions, such as for Oxycontin. These prescriptions began increasing in the early 90s and by 1999 the overdose deaths caused by them began rising.

Around 2010, as the pain medications began to be more tightly controlled, overdoses from heroin began to rise. In a 28 state study performed by the CDC, it was found that heroin overdose deaths more than doubled between 2010 and 2012. This was the second wave that the United States experienced.

Now, we are in the midst of the third wave of overdoses. This current wave began in 2013 and is being caused by the rise in synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

What are synthetic opioids like fentanyl?

Many may hear about fentanyl from the media. It is common to see articles and news anchors talking about the fentanyl crisis yet many are still unaware of what exactly fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids actually are.

Fentanyl is the most common synthetic opioid being linked to overdose deaths. It is an opioid pain medication that is between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine. It’s FDA approved usage is for treating severe pain, most commonly advanced cancer pain. When prescribed by a doctor it typically comes in either transdermal patches or lozenges.

Despite it’s FDA approved usage, the medication is not only frequently diverted for recreational use but also manufactured illicitly and mixed into street drugs such as heroin or dealer pressed pain pills. This is being done because it is a relatively cheap drug to manufacture and can be made in a lab domestically rather than relying on poppy plants from other countries. It provides a high similar to heroin in much smaller doses due to it’s strength.

This strength is also why it’s causing so many more overdoses. This rise in fentanyl linked overdoses is rising exponentially. The amount of fentanyl linked overdose deaths in 2020 was 18 times higher than 2013. At this point in time, fentanyl is being found in nearly all recreational drugs purchased on the black market. In many places it has completely replaced heroin and is also being found in counterfeit benzodiazepine and opioid pills. Despite the drastically different effect, it’s even being found in cocaine and methamphetamine!

How can we prevent more overdose deaths?


There are many ways that we can reduce the amount of overdose deaths but one of the most effective methods is through the direct distribution of naloxone, commonly known by it’s brand name Narcan.nasal naloxone sober living

Narcan is a medication that allows for a reversal of an overdose. While distribution to first responders and facilities such as drug treatment centers and sober livings is important, it’s also crucial for the public to have access to naloxone as well. One study found that 1 in 3 overdoses occur when a bystander is present.

Increasing access to naloxone training and resources for the general public will allow for a significant number of overdose deaths to be avoided. When family, friends, and others are trained and able to recognize an overdose it empowers the general public to be a part of the solution.

Reducing Stigma

Aside from reducing stigma related to substance use disorders as a whole, there is also a need to reduce the stigma relating to overdoses and naloxone. There are some who might not want to learn about or possess Narcan because they feel like it’s “enabling” or somehow enabling people to abuse opioids. The truth couldn’t be further from that! By using the right language and educating others on the true nature of opioid addiction, which is a medical illness, may help break the barrier of stigma.

Additional Resources

Below is a list of additional resources that provide overdose education, naloxone training and distribution, and much more.

As has been made clear, having naloxone nearby can be the difference between life and death for someone overdosing on an opioid. One of the issues here is that when one is in need of this medication, they typically are not able to administer it to themselves.

If a loved one is struggling to stay in recovery living on their own, supportive housing might be the answer.