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Prescription Opioids and Heroin

What are opioids? Opioids are a class of drugs that includes heroin, prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone (i.e., Oxycontin® , Percocet® , Vicodin®), and dangerous synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, carfentanil, and other analogues. Opioids work in the brain to reduce pain and can also produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria.

Prescription opioids are important pain medications that can provide relief for acute or chronic pain. Unfortunately, they can also be prescribed inappropriately and misused. Misuse of prescription opioids increases the risk of developing opioid use disorder (OUD) and may lead to overdose.

Opioids are addictive. Taking opioids at high doses for extended periods of time increases the risk of developing OUD . Characteristics of OUD include developing physical tolerance, as early as two days following continuous use, (i.e., a need for increasingly higher doses accompanied by a marked decrease in effect), being unable to stop using opioids consistently, and experiencing painful physical withdrawal symptoms when abruptly stopping use.

Opioids are deadly. High doses can cause people to stop breathing and die. Nationally, the number of deaths involving opioids, has quadrupled since 1999, and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in the United States for people under the age of 50.

In 2016, opioid overdoses killed 1,946 people in Illinois, an 82% increase compared to 2013.

  • > 1.5x the number of homicides
  • ~ 2x the number of fatal motor vehicle accidents
  • 30% more than the number of all gun-related deaths (including homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings)

Much of the alarming increase in opioid overdose deaths in recent years can be attributed to the rise of dangerous synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Synthetic opioids are fast acting and can be hundreds to thousands of times more toxic than heroin. Heroin and other street drugs are often mixed with fentanyl to increase their effects, which can quickly become a lethal combination. Between 2013 and 2016, overdose deaths in Illinois attributable to synthetic opioids increased tenfold.


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