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The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic

Health Articles |
Prescription Drugs

When painkillers kill people

Every day, 44 people in the United States die from an overdose of prescription painkillers, and many more become addicted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Opioids, also called narcotics, are a group of drugs prescribed for pain relief. They include:

  • Natural opioids like opium, morphine and codeine
  • Semi-synthetic opioids like heroin, Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxydodone (OxyContin and Percocet)
  • Synthetic opioids like Fentanyl, methadone and hydromorphone (Delaudid)

The abuse of and addiction to opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers is a huge problem in the U.S., where one in six teenagers has used a prescription drug to get high.

More than half of teens who abuse prescription medicine report they are getting them from friends, family and acquaintances. Some people share prescription drugs, selling their own pills or pills stolen from classmates.

The Painkiller-Heroin Connection

Four out of five heroin users started with prescription drug abuse. Heroin abuse, like prescription opioid abuse, is dangerous because the drug is highly addictive and because there is high risk for overdosing. In the case of heroin, this danger is made worse by the lack of control over how pure the drug is and the possibility there are other powerful drugs mixed in.

When someone who starts misusing or abusing prescription drugs runs out of a legal means of acquiring them via prescription, they often turn to the black market to maintain their dependency. This is where costs rise drastically and users often transition from one expensive opioid (prescription) to a cheap opioid (heroin). In some communities, heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs.

Overdose Deaths on the Rise

The nation is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin) has increased 200 percent. Increases in prescription opioid pain reliever and heroin deaths are fueling the drug overdose epidemic, according to the CDC. More than six out of 10 drug overdose deaths in 2014 involved opioids, including opioid pain relievers and heroin.

In Pennsylvania, there were 2,488 drug overdose deaths in 2014. In this region, Philadelphia had the most overdose deaths. Bucks County came in second with 205 deaths.

What Can Parents Do to Prevent Their Children From Abusing Prescription Medication?

  • Educate yourself – Visit the websites for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Medicine Abuse Project for information, tools, resources and support.
  • Talk to your kids about the risks of prescription medicine abuse. Children who learn a lot about the risks of drugs at home are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who do not get that critical message from their parents.
  • Safeguard your medicine. Keep prescription medicine in a secure place, count and monitor the number of pills you have and lock them up — and ask your friends and family members to do the same. Here is a list of medication disposal box locations in Bucks County.
  • Get help. The Bucks County Drug & Alcohol Commission has information about where to get help in Bucks County as well as a resource from PAStop.
  • If you know someone who has a problem with prescription medicine or heroin abuse, learn about local education and recovery resources led by the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania. The Doylestown-based nonprofit offers prevention, consultation, advocacy and recovery support services.

What is Doylestown Health Doing?

Doylestown Health instituted a "Narcotic-Responsible Hospital" policy several years ago to manage the prescribing of narcotics in the Emergency Department.

The program was developed to create consistency in prescribing practices while keeping providers mindful of prescription quantities upon discharge. Providers continue to effectively address a patient's pain, but also consider non-narcotic alternatives to treat pain.

Doylestown Health also works with the Central Bucks Educational Center in Doylestown and with school nurses in the Central Bucks School District. The nurses received training of an FDA-approved medication that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose (prescription narcotics and heroin). Naloxone, or Narcan, is used by first responders (ambulance and police) and by physicians in the Emergency Room to save the life of a patient who has overdosed.

The Central Bucks School District is developing a policy that will make Narcan available for school nurses in the middle and high schools.

About Doylestown Health

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 271 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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