Pregnant Woman Dies of Heroin Overdose
Heroin Epidemic Sweeps America’s Suburbs and Rural Areas
Sadly, Neuhoff’s story is not unique — not because she was pregnant, and not because she lived in a small rural community outside of Springfield, Illinois, where things like this are not expected to happen. Neuhoff’s death is one among hundreds of overdose deaths involving heroin or opioid painkillers that have occurred in Illinois in recent years.
Other states also are experiencing a surge in deaths related to heroin and opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin-related deaths in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past four years, and the “heroin epidemic” has reached a number of rural and suburban areas. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that areas in and around St. Louis, Missouri, have also experienced increasing numbers of overdose deaths due to heroin use.
WBEZ Chicago investigated why so much heroin ends up in the Midwest, and reports that most heroin supplies travel a direct route from Mexico to Chicago, which the drug cartels use as a hub. From Chicago, distribution to Springfield, St. Louis and other Midwestern communities is fast and efficient, with suburban houses functioning as drug warehouses.
Not only are different geographic areas seeing an influx of heroin, but the demographics of heroin are changing as well. While heroin use is most common among men between the ages of 18 and 25, CDC researchers have found that, in recent years, heroin use has doubled among women and non-Hispanic whites.
But why are so many more people in America using heroin? Is heroin so overwhelmingly powerful that the least likely people, even pregnant women, can fall victim to its allure?
A Few Pain Pills Can Escalate to Full-Blown Heroin Addiction
As reported by TIME magazine and other media outlets, addiction to prescription painkillers may be fueling some of the rise in heroin use. For many people, addiction to opiates starts as a single prescription for pain pills from the doctor — perhaps to help manage pain related to surgery or an injury when Tylenol and ibuprofen don’t offer sufficient relief. If the prescribed dose of opioids such as hydrocodone or oxycodone is high enough, a person can develop a tolerance to the drug within a few days, and physical addiction follows shortly thereafter. Once the addiction takes hold, the person will need more pills to relieve the pain.
That’s what happened in Neuhoff’s case. Family and friends say her opiate addiction started a few years ago when she began taking pain medication.
Many people experience pleasing side effects from opioids, making addiction even more likely. This leads them to refill prescriptions for pain pills they don’t necessarily need for pain. When refills for opioid pills become difficult to obtain through traditional channels — doctors and pharmacists have started monitoring opioid prescriptions and refills more closely — the new addict seeks other sources or alternatives that provide similar effects, like heroin.
Heroin is now easier to get than prescription pain pills, is much cheaper, and has been made available in powder form, so a fear of needles is no longer a barrier to its use.
Opioid Painkillers vs. Opiates: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Opioid painkillers and heroin have similar properties and similar effects. Opioid painkillers are synthetic or semi-synthetic drugs derived from opium — found in the natural resin of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin is an opiate that is derived from morphine, another opiate that is made from opium.
Opioids or opiates are in the same drug category. They bind to the opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system, often giving the user a euphoric rush or high. All are potentially addictive.
The difference is that while opioids are prescribed or used in clinical or surgical settings, heroin is an illegal drug that is sold as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance. It can be smoked, sniffed or injected. The person buying heroin never actually knows the strength of the drug in the packet they buy or what it might be mixed with, and therein lies the danger — even in small amounts there is always a risk of overdose.
Recovery Is Possible
Addiction to any substance is tough to overcome. Overcoming an addiction to heroin, while not impossible, is said to be the toughest. Heroin is highly addictive and the withdrawal symptoms are so severe and painful that once a person has tried heroin, it is very difficult to stop. But stopping is possible with the right help — the trick is getting the addict into a heroin addiction treatment program, and getting them there as soon as possible.
Heroin-related Overdose Deaths Surge in Illinois. Reboot Illinois. The Huffington Post, March 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/reboot-illinois/heroin-related-overdose-d_b_9356334.html
What is the scope of heroin use in the United States? National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, 2014. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states
Heroin. What is heroin? Drug Facts, National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, 2017. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
Heroin Use in U.S. Reaches Epidemic Levels. Alexandra Sifferlin. TIME Health, July 2015.
Heroin: It's cheap, it's available and it's dangerous business. Natalie Moore. WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, December 2013. https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/heroin-its-cheap-its-available-and-its-dangerous-business/a77c194c-eebc-41ce-a86c-6e13b4863160
The St. Louis Heroin Epidemic: Who Is Addicted And Where Is It Coming From? Camille Phillips. St. Louis Public Radio, March 2014. http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/st-louis-heroin-epidemic-who-addicted-and-where-it-coming#stream/0