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Q & A with Dr. Jagdeep Kaur – Drug Overdose Awareness

On the occasion of International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31st, I would like to educate my community about the ill-effects of drug use. We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. It is costing us lives, but recovery from drug use is possible.

Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States

The rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States is continuing to increase at an alarming rate. Drug poisoning (overdose) deaths include deaths resulting from an unintentional or intentional overdose of a drug, being given the wrong drug, taking a drug in error, or taking a drug inadvertently. Drugs involved in drug overdose deaths include methadone, methamphetamine, cocaine, natural and semi-synthetic opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids other than methadone. According to the  National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) that covers provisional birth, death, marriage, and divorce statistics:

  • From 1999 to 2016, more than 630,000 people have died from a drug overdose.
  • Provisional data from 2017 presented 72,000 total drug overdose deaths.
  • Around 66% of the more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid.
  • In 2016, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and illegal opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl) was five times higher than in 1999.
  • On average, 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In Franklin County Pennsylvania, the number of lives lost due to drug overdoses in 2017 was 35. In 2016 the overdose death count was 46.

Below, I have answered some commonly asked questions related to drugs and addiction.

Q: What are opioids?

A: Opioids is a comprehensive term that includes every single substance that stimulates opioid receptors in the human body. These include natural opiates, semisynthetic opioids from natural opiates (oxycodone, heroin, hydrocodone, hydromorphone) and synthetic opioids manufactured from basic chemicals in the lab (methadone, fentanyl etc.).

Q: What is opium?

A: It is specific sticky residue that can be extracted from the opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum).

Q: What are opiates? A: These are natural components of opium poppy including morphine and codeine.

Q: How do opioids affect the brain and body?

A: Opioid receptors are present in the brain, spinal cord, and gut. In the brain there are highly concentrated areas controlling pain perception, emotion regulation, memory control, breathing control and the pleasure center.

Q: What is addiction?

A: Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuits. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations. Addiction is a brain disease and it presents itself as lack of control over the use of drugs, in spite of having social and relationship problems due to drugs.

Q: Why do people use drugs?

A: People might be using drugs due to many different reasons. They could be curious about drugs and start experimenting with them. There could be social or peer pressure to fit in. Drug use could result from brain disease, chemical coping, or lifestyle choice.   

People use drugs to feel better as these drugs affect the brain’s pleasure center. Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious could be another reason some use drugs for coping with these emotions. Some people use drugs to improve their performance as they want to get more done in less time.

Q: If drugs are making people feel better, helping them cope with their emotions and improving performance then what is the problem?

A: The problem is the brain changes due to drug use. The good effects of drug use are not lasting as long and the person feels the urge to use high doses to feel the same effects. In the case they don’t use drugs, they start going through withdrawal which is an unpleasant feeling. Due to drug use, a person’s behavior starts changing. They are spending more time looking for the drug, intoxicated, or recovering from the effects of drugs. They are not spending much time with family or friends, may be stealing money to support their drug use, and their functioning is declining. They are often not able to keep a job as they lose control over the drug use, and keep using drugs although it is causing physical, social, legal, and relationship problems. It is not only the person using drugs that suffers from their addiction; their family members and friends are suffering from the consequences as well.

Q: What are the risk factors for overdose and addiction?

A: No one is immune to addiction but still there are associated factors that increase the risk of overdose and addiction, including:

  • Taking higher doses of opioids
  • Using opioids long-term
  • Taking opioids with other substances that affect the respiratory center in the brain e.g., benzodiazepine or alcohol
  • Adolescence
  • Age of 65 years or older
  • Sleep disordered breathing
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Psychiatric history
  • History of overdose and substance use disorder

Q: Are there any protective factors for addition?

A: Not everyone who experiments with drugs or takes prescribed medications gets addicted. We should not judge anybody based on their medical conditions or medications that they are taking. Factors that can protect people from developing addictions are:

  • Good self-control
  • Parental monitoring and support
  • Positive relationships
  • Good grades
  • School and drug policies
  • Neighborhood resources

Don’t leave drug use untreated as it could have a fatal outcome. Seek help and stay healthy.

This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.