The Link Between Prescription Opioids and Heroin UseDylan Romero
America’s Prescription Opioid Epidemic
You’ve probably seen endless news stories covering America’s rampant prescription drug abuse. Due to over-prescription, misinformation, and wide availability of these highly addictive medications, over 11.4 million people reported misusing their opioid medications in 2017. This has resulted in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services labelling America’s opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
What you may not know is that prescription opioid misuse often serves as a precursor to the much more stigmatized use of heroin. Read on to learn more about the connection between these two substances.
Opioids vs. Opiates: What’s the Difference? (Prescriptions vs. Heroin)
The difference between opioids and opiates may seem subtle, but it is important for understanding the link between prescription drugs and heroin.
Heroin, morphine, and codeine are examples of opiates: naturally occurring medications that are extracted from opium poppies. Reports of opium use for pain relief and narcotics applications extend back to 3400 B.C. Up until the 1800s, so many soldiers returned from war with morphine addictions that it became known as “soldier’s disease.” This should serve as a warning that just because opium and its derivatives are more “natural” does not mean that they are safe. By the late 19th Century, it was widely accepted that opiates were dangerous, and scientists sought to harness their properties in new forms.
Prescription opioid medications are synthetic or semi-synthetic variations on opiates. This means that while all opioids are opiates, not all opiates are opioids. Created in laboratories, opioids were intended to be safer than their natural source material. As new derivatives were created, pharmaceutical companies pressed doctors to prescribe them more and more often, citing that addiction in a clinical setting was “highly unlikely.” Of course, we now know this to be untrue.
Whether you realize it or not, the generic and brand names of opioid medications are probably familiar to you.
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin® and Percocet®)
Why Do People Switch from Prescription Drugs to Heroin?
With these similarities in mind, a connection begins to emerge between opioids and opiates. Opiates, like heroin, boast many of the same effects as prescription drugs, and it can seem a natural transition for people who have an opioid use disorder.
To understand why people would change from their prescriptions to the highly-stigmatized drug of heroin, it’s important to understand two things: availability and cost.
The fact is that there is more heroin available in the United States now than ever before. In spite of attempted crack-downs, countless drug busts, and marijuana legalization, heroin remains second only to marijuana in ease of access. If a prescription runs out, or a clinician refuses to grant further access to the medication, people begin looking for a more common alternative.
Another key factor in opioid abuse, especially in the United States, is cost. While medication charges skyrocket, heroin is at its lowest street price in decades. In the early 1980s, a gram of pure heroin would’ve cost over $2,200. Today, that amount goes for just $500, while one dose can cost between $5 and $10. By comparison, filling a prescription without insurance can be nearly impossible for many people, and when that option disappears, their addiction becomes even more expensive. The street value of one OxyContin pill can range up to $80, and one Vicodin can cost $25. This is often unsustainable for many people, resulting in a transition to heroin.
A group in recovery for addiction were asked why they had been using heroin. A shocking 94% of them reported that it was because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”
Signs of Heroin Use
Heroin is a depressant, also called a “downer.” It blocks the perception of pain and creates a feeling of relaxation, often coupled with elation or euphoria. As with most substances, people using heroin may be able to conceal their symptoms at the beginning of their use. However, as their physical dependence develops into full-blown addiction, they may begin to exhibit the below characteristics.
People abusing heroin may exhibit all or none of these symptoms, and this list is not intended to serve as a substitute for medical advice. If you suspect that your loved one may be using heroin or prescription opioids, we encourage you to contact Concise Recovery to speak with one of our representatives.
- Physical symptoms of heroin use: shortness of breath, small pupils, dry mouth, droopy appearance, weight loss, track marks from needles, infections at injection sites, running nose (not associated with illness), cessation of menstrual cycle, appearance of cuts or scabs from skin picking.
- Behavioral signs of heroin use: hyperactivity (followed by obvious crashes), erratic behavior, disorientation, lying, avoiding eye contact, change in sleep patterns (sleeping at inappropriate times), slurred or incoherent speech, worsening hygiene, losing interest in hobbies, failing to meet obligations or deadlines, hostile behavior towards loved ones, wearing long sleeves and pants even in warm weather.
- Paraphernalia associated with heroin use: needles and syringes, burned spoons, burned aluminum foil, straws with burn marks, small bags, powder residue, pipes.
The Dangers of Opioid and Opiate Abuse
We know that overall, the incidence of heroin use is 19 times higher for those who reported previous use of prescription pain relievers than for those who didn’t. Of those Americans who started using heroin, 80% reported misusing prescription opioids first.
Today, 68% of overdose deaths are attributed to an opioid, which breaks down to over 130 deaths per day. While 2.1 million people have an opioid use disorder, 886,000 of them are heroin users. Of the overdose deaths reported, 47,600 were attributable to opioids, while 15,482 were due to a heroin overdose.
Opioid Detox and Treatment at Concise Recovery
If your friend or loved one is displaying signs of opioid or opiate use, please contact Concise Recovery today. Our detox and residential treatment programs offer a broad host of amenities and expert care at our well-appointed Southern California facilities. You can speak to one of our representatives by calling 888-9788-5424 or by submitting our fully confidential contact form. Help your loved one find the healing they deserve.