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Opioid Abuse: An American Epidemic

Prescription painkillers and other opioids are fueling a health crisis in the U.S.

In 2016, 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses, more than any other year on record.* The epidemic affects all races and classes and is killing more Americans a year than car accidents. It’s a national crisis and one you’re likely to face if you work in a public health job or are looking to start a career in health education and promotion. To help solve this crisis, you first need to understand what exactly is going on.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are painkillers. They react with opioid receptors on nerve cells and decrease the sensation of physical pain. They can also produce feelings of euphoria, which is the primary reason they are abused. Unfortunately, they can be quite physically addictive, making them difficult to quit. Opioids come in several forms.

Opioid Abuse: An American Epidemic

Prescription Opioids
These opioids are intended to treat moderate and severe pain. They include codeine, morphine, and the newer hydrocodone (brand name: Vicodin) and oxycodone (brand name: OxyContin). These newer opioids were designed to be less addictive and much harder to abuse than previous painkillers. However, they turned out to be more addictive than advertised and easier to abuse than intended, which is why they are blamed for fueling the current opioid epidemic, with oxycodone considered the main culprit. Prescription opioids as a whole accounted for 40% of opioid overdose deaths in 2016.* Most abusers obtain their pills illegally.

A synthetic opioid, Fentanyl is a class of prescription painkiller many times more powerful than other prescription opioids. It’s intended to treat the severest pain such as the pain associated with surgeries and late-stage cancer. Illegally sold Fentanyl is becoming increasingly common, despite the fact that its potency greatly increases the risk of overdose.

An illegally produced and sold form of opioids that can be injected or snorted, heroin use has increased as prescription opioid abuse has increased. Many opioid addicts turn to heroin because it can be less expensive and more available than pills. Four in five new users of heroin started out using prescription opioids.§

How Many Americans Are Addicted to Opioids?

In 2016, an estimated 2 million Americans ages 12 and older abused prescription opioids, with another 591,000 abusing heroin.§ That’s about 1 out of every 150 people in the U.S.

Can You Recover From Opioid Addiction?

Opioids create physical dependence. To quit, those who abuse opioids must undergo a detoxification process that can be intensely unpleasant, with physical discomfort lasting for days and sometimes weeks. Withdrawal symptoms can include:**

  • Intense craving for drugs
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills and goose bumps 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches
  • Agitation and severe mood swings  

There are, however, ways to ease the withdrawal. Drugs such as buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone can be used to reduce the discomforts of ending chemical dependency. For overdoses, naloxone, if given right away, can prevent death and other overdose effects.

Once an opioid addict is fully withdrawn, the next step is to avoid relapse. Numerous programs can help addicts become and stay ex-addicts, including well-known 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous.

How Can You Help Address the Opioid Crisis?

To combat the opioid epidemic, we need more health educators and leaders working in health education and promotion. What is health education and promotion? It is a vital discipline that utilizes education to promote healthy living choices. Those who hold a health education and promotion degree work in everything from global health education programs that promote world health to regional drug-and-addiction programs that are fighting opioid abuse.

If you want to work in this field, the best degrees you can earn are an MS in Health Education and Promotion or a PhD in Health Education and Promotion. Not only can these graduate degrees help you gain the skills you need to make a difference, you can earn either from an online university. When you earn your master’s in health education and promotion online or your PhD in health education online, you won’t have to deal with the hassles of a campus-based program. Instead, an online university can let you complete the majority of your coursework from home and on a flexible schedule designed for those working full time.

The advantages of online education can make it possible for you to earn the health education and promotion degree you need to make a real difference in the opioid crisis.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Health Education and Promotion and a PhD in Health Education and Promotion online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Opioid Overdose, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the internet at

†D. Nolan, et. al., How Bad Is the Opioid Epidemic, Frontline, on the internet at

‡S. Moghe, Opioid History: From ‘Wonder Drug’ to Abuse Epidemic, CNN, on the internet at

§American Society of Addictive Medicine, Opioid Addiction, on the internet as a PDF at

**WebMD, Treating an Addiction to Painkillers, on the internet at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,