Drug overdose is an increasing public health burden in the U.S., with 63,600 deaths reported in 2016, 42,249 of which were attributed to opioids. The only opioid drug that saw an overdose mortality decrease in 2016 was methadone. Experts blame much of the increase on synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which is about 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Emergency Room Visits Rise by 30%
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study tracking opioid-related emergency room (ER) visits from June 2016 to September 2017 revealed alarming trends. Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin saw the greatest increases in overdose-related ER visits, with the highest in Wisconsin (109%). Additional key findings from this study:
- Overdose rates increased for men and women and all age groups.
- All five main U.S. regions experienced rate increases, as follows: Midwest (70%), West (40%), Northeast (21%), Southwest (20%) and Southeast (14%).
- Individuals ages 35-54 saw a 36% increase in opioid overdoses.
- Cities with more than 1 million people saw a 54% increase, however, cities and towns of all sizes incurred some increase.
Fentanyl Partially to Blame for Overdose Increases
Deaths from synthetic opioids soared from 9,580 in 2015 to more than 19,000 in 2016. The same year, synthetic opioid-related deaths accounted for 30.5% of all drug overdose fatalities and 45.9% of all opioid-related deaths, with a 100% increase in death rates compared to 2015. The CDC reported that more than 50% of overdose deaths in 10 states tested positive for fentanyl in 2016. Some experts think fentanyl-laced cocaine could represent the next wave of the addiction crisis, but only a handful of states have issued warnings. In 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said 7% of cocaine seized in New England in 2017 contained fentanyl, up from 4% the prior year. The CDC said the largest overall death rate increases in 2016 involved cocaine (52.4%) and synthetic opioids (100%), likely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl. In many cases, unsuspecting users believe they are taking prescription opioids such as oxycodone. In Georgia, an alarming, sudden spike in drug overdoses was tied to little yellow pills sold as Percocet that were actually fentanyl. Six of the overdose victims did not survive.
State and Regional Overdose Death Statistics
- In 2016, more than 1,300 New Yorkers died of a drug overdose, with nearly half (44%) of those deaths involving fentanyl.
- Connecticut experienced a 420% increase in overdose deaths, attributed to the lethal combo of fentanyl and cocaine.
- Washington, DC saw the largest increase in synthetic opioid deaths (392.3%), followed by Illinois (227.3%) and Maryland (206.9%).
- Pennsylvania and Florida saw huge increases in overall drug overdose deaths from May 2015 to May 2017; 83% and 85%, respectively
How Long Do Overdose Symptoms Last?
The time it takes for a drug to cause an overdose depends on the drug, dosage, duration of abuse, method used (e.g., injected, swallowed, snorted or smoked), co-occurring physical and mental issues, age and body weight. The immediate impact of nonfatal drug overdoses can last from a few minutes to hours, but drug overdoses can result in devastating long-term effects. These include injuries sustained during the overdose, cardiac and muscular problems, mild to severe brain damage, cognitive impairment, renal failure and hearing loss.
Drug Overdose Prevention
The CDC says widespread efforts to prevent drug overdoses will require coordination by law enforcement, first responders, mental health providers and public health agencies, among others. It recommends state health departments take the following steps to combat the rise in opioid overdoses and associated deaths:
- Alert communities to rapid increases in overdoses seen in ERs.
- Increase naloxone distribution to first responders, family, friends and other community members in impacted areas, as policies permit.
- Increase availability of and access to treatment services.
- Support programs that reduce harms from injecting opioids, in combination with referral to treatment.
- Encourage the use of prescription drug monitoring programs to inform clinical practice.
On April 4, 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office issued its first advisory in 13 years, urging more Americans to carry the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. Dr. Jerome Adams said more than three-quarters of opioid deaths happen away from medical settings, so ensuring more people have naloxone (Narcan) is crucial. Although the antidote is not a long-term solution, it can halt the effects of overdose until emergency personnel arrive. Repeat overdoses may be prevented with medication-assisted treatment, as well as residential treatment incorporating a multidisciplinary addiction recovery approach. It is crucial to seek professional help as soon as a drug problem is recognized rather than waiting until a person experiences their first overdose.