What are opioids?
Opioids form a class of drug that includes powerful pain medications, such as oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl. The illegal drug heroin is also an opioid. Some opioids are derived from opium poppies, while others are synthetic.
Increasingly, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are illegally manufactured and distributed alongside or mixed with heroin. Many opioid-related deaths involve more than one type of drug.
Doctors prescribe opioids because the drugs are highly effective as painkillers. But they are also highly addictive.
How did the crisis begin?
Many experts trace the roots of the opioid crisis to the overprescription of opioid pain relievers, beginning in the late 1990’s. Health experts now recognize that prescription opioids are dangerously addictive. Many doctors have taken steps to limit opioid prescriptions, and prescription rates have decreased every year since 2010.
But legal prescription opioids are just one side of the epidemic. Even as the prescription opioid supply is constrained, the illegal supply has rapidly expanded to meet the demand. Heroin and black-market fentanyl are often cheaper and more accessible than legal prescription opioids. Studies have shown that prescription opioid use is a strong predictor of later heroin use: three out of four new heroin users have reported previously abusing prescription opioids.
"It only takes a little to lose a lot."
- CDC's Rx Awareness Campaign
Data Source: CDC Wonder. Note that no data does not necessarily mean no incidents. The CDC does not report small totals and unreliable crude rates.