There’s a high risk for overdose in young adults who abuse prescription painkillers, but chances are most wouldn’t know what to do if an overdose occurred. The issue at hand is the non-medicinal use of narcotic pain medications. Opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin can substantially slow and even stop breathing and other organ functions.
Safe and effective overdose interventions are available, but a new study found that most narcotic abusers are unaware of options like the prescription medication naloxone. Researchers found that traditional heroin-using populations were much more in the know about intervening in occurrence of an overdose than prescription opioid abusers.
“They [opioid users] tend to have a pretty severe lack of knowledge despite the fact that most have experienced overdoses within their drug-using network,” said David Frank, doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.
Those who use opioids daily are sometimes under the misconception that because they are using a medication prescribed by a doctor, they are not taking a dangerous drug. Prescription opioid abusers also believe that they are very different than those who are addicted to heroin.
Social stigmas surrounding heroin abuse prevent those who have become addicted to prescription opioids from seeing that painkiller abuse is similar to and just as dangerous as heroin abuse, researchers say. The same social stigmas affect treatment for opioid abusers as well, claims Jack Stein, director of the office of science policy and communications at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “This same stigma has prevented health care providers from recognizing the signs of prescription opioid abuse or knowing how to manage addiction in their patients who may not fit the expected profile or stereotype of a drug abuser,” Stein said.
Because of the stigma, information on overdose prevention and available treatments, such as naloxone and buprenorphine, fail to reach a large portion of opioid abusers.
Researchers conclude that there is a pressing need to develop outreach programs that better address the perceptions and misconceptions of opioid abusers. For instance, they found that opioid abusers tend to believe that prescription painkillers are relatively harmless and are less addictive than heroin. They also have the misconception that overdose intervention treatments are expensive, while in actuality in New York state where the study was conducted, naloxone is often distributed free of charge.
Stein and Frank also believe that outreach programs should begin in high schools and colleges, as prescription painkiller abuse often begins in teenage years Frank understands that high schools focus on abstinence instead of discussing overdose treatments so that they won’t be viewed as encouraging drug use. However, he thinks a more harm-reduction minded way of approaching outreach programs for high school and college students would be helpful. All types and forms of intervention should be considered.