FAQs: Answering Your Biggest Questions About the Opioid Epidemic

By Dane O’Leary

Here’s a riddle for you: What is killing more Americans each year than either car accidents or firearms? The answer is opioids.

Although opioid addiction is a prominent talking point in all corners of the country, there are still many people who have a number of questions and misconceptions about this deadly class of drug. For instance, some are uncertain of what actually characterizes an opioid and how to differentiate an opioid from other types of painkillers or mind-altering substances. Then there are those who find the term “opioid epidemic” to be confusing and misleading. While there are constantly new reports about the dismaying status of the crisis, there are few resources that address even the most basic questions that a number of people have.

The following is a compilation of some of the questions that are infrequently answered. Additionally, you’ll find corresponding answers that are straightforward and concise, helping you to put our current drug crisis into perspective.

Why Are They Calling This an “Opioid Epidemic”?

Opioid epidemic graphicMany of us hear the word “epidemic” and think of some type of fast-spreading airborne illness, but it can be used in more symbolic ways, too. The reason that opioid addiction is often described as an epidemic is due to how quickly it escalated from a moderate problem to a nationwide crisis. According to most experts, the current opioid epidemic can be traced back to the launch and aggressive marketing of OxyContin in the 1990s. If we’re to believe that was truly the catalyst, then it took less than two decades for opioid addiction to reach the point of killing over 33,000 Americans per year, which is more deaths in a single year than any other cause of preventable death.1 To make matters worse, statistics indicate that opioid addiction is still on the rise. When you consider all the variables and the apparent trajectory, it seems appropriate to refer to the rapid spread of this opioid crisis as an epidemic.

What Is the Difference Between Opiates and Opioids?

The terms “opioid” and “opiate” are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. This becomes quite confusing when an article, news report or textbook makes a distinction by referring to one or the other. In spite of context clues, it can be quite difficult to decipher the similarities and differences between these two terms.

You’ve probably noticed that “opioid” and “opiate” look a lot like the word “opium,” which is no coincidence. Both terms are derived from the word “opium” and, likewise, refer to substances that are somehow related to opium. Some of these opium-like substances are opiates. In short, these are substances that are similar to opium in terms of effects as well as chemical composition. More often than not, opiates are alkaloids of opium, meaning that they’re actually derived from the opium poppy plant. By comparison, opioids — a more modern and inclusive term — are substances that are similar to opium in their effects, but they may or may not be similar in terms of chemical composition.2 When an opioid has a different structure from opium and its alkaloids, it’s usually because the substance is synthetic or semisynthetic, rather than being derived from the poppy plant.

It may help to think of opiates as a subgroup of opioids. Examples of opiates include morphine, codeine and heroin. Meanwhile, some of the most well-known opioids are oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Who Is at the Highest Risk of Becoming Addicted?

Teens sharing pillsIt’s difficult to identify a single population as being at substantially higher risk of addiction than other populations, especially since risk can be determined by so many different factors. However, there have been several populations identified as having higher-than-average risk of developing addiction. One of those populations is teens.

The reason that teens are considered a risk group is due to how common it’s become for teens to experiment with substance abuse. As well, modern teens are becoming desensitized to substance abuse due to things like the media, the entertainment industry and experiences having loved ones with substance abuse problems. There’s also evidence that teenage substance abuse causes lasting neurological changes — particularly regarding the pleasure and reward circuits in the brain — that can increase susceptibility to addiction later in life.3

With youths being a known risk group, it’s almost ironic that senior citizens are another. The reason that seniors are becoming addicted more frequently is rather straightforward. Basically, this is the population for whom physicians are doctors are the most willing to write prescriptions for addictive substances like painkillers and benzodiazepines.4 According to recent studies, more than one-third of all Medicare recipients receive prescriptions for addictive pain medications.5 With many seniors experiencing things like arthritis and other painful medical conditions, it’s important that loved ones monitor the elderly for signs of dependency and for physicians to rotate addictive painkillers with non-addictive alternatives.

Of course, there are other populations that are at elevated risk of becoming addicted to mind-altering substances, too. For instance, those who suffered from childhood abuse, victims of rape and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are often seen as particularly susceptible to substance abuse problems. Similarly, individuals who suffer from psychological disorders are considered susceptible due to high rates of dual diagnosis between many mental illnesses and addiction.

Is There a Proper Way to Dispose of Unused Opioids?

There are actually a couple things you can do with unused prescription drugs. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are a few medications that can be safely flushed down the toilet or sink.6 However, many medications require an alternative means of disposal to ensure there’s no accidental exposure. Most of us have access to drug disposal or take-back programs, either in our own towns or nearby. The Drug Enforcement Agency has an online form with which you can search for authorized disposal locations near you, or you can call 800-882-9539 to speak with them over the phone. Alternatively, your primary care provider may be able to offer instruction and disposal options.

What Can I Do About the Opioid Epidemic?

Finding a solution to this crisis is not exclusive to legislators, public officials and law enforcement officers. In fact, there are more and more people becoming proactive through activism, increasing public awareness and even just becoming more educated.

Across the U.S., a number of communities have come together to host rallies and other types of events. Some of these events are to honor those who have lost their lives to opioid addiction while others are more about changing the narrative surrounding addiction and ending the stigma that discourages individuals from seeking treatment.7 In some areas, church groups organize educational seminars to help teach parishioners about the dangers of this misunderstood disease.8 Meanwhile, it’s increasingly common for those who have overcome addiction through recovery to become activists, hosting fundraisers to help others gain access quality addiction treatment9 and to make other vital recovery resources more available.10Then there are those events that simply celebrate recovery and individuals who have regained their sobriety.11

There are many of these events occurring across the country, but organizing or attending public events isn’t the only way to contribute. Many rehabilitation facilities would welcome volunteers who want to be involved, give back and make a real difference. Bringing more public awareness to the opioid crisis by educating others is another small step that can make a huge difference in the long-term.

If you would like to learn about your treatment options, please call us at The Oaks at La Paloma today and our admissions coordinators can answer any questions you may have.


1 Gupta, Dr. Sanjay. “Doctors must lead us out of our opioid epidemic.” CNN.

2Opioid vs. Opiate: Is One More Dangerous?” Opium.com.

3Changes in brain increase teen risk of drug addiction.” Hazelden Foundation.

4 Esposito, Lisa. “Silent Epidemic: Seniors and Addiction.” S. News.

5 Haroutunian, Harry. “Opioid Addiction And Dangers Of Prescription Drugs.” AARP.

Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

7 Jernigan, Zachary. “Event takes steps to erase addiction stigma.” JournalAZ.

8Eugene Parish hosts reflection on addiction epidemic.” Catholic Philly.

9 Howell, Melissa. “High school for recovering teens to host fundraising luncheon.” The Oklahoman.

10 Wright, David. “Hope Over Heroin coordinator calls event a success.” The Times-Gazette.

11Second Annual Recovery Over Dinner announced for July 11th.” Eye on Annapolis.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.