Drug overdose has become a serious public health challenge in Maryland and across the country. Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statistics show state overdose deaths from prescription opioids continues to rise. From January to September 2016, there were 317 prescription opioids overdose deaths, up from 270 in 2015. More concerning is the spike in heroin and fentanyl, two cheaper, more easily obtainable alternatives for opioid users. Deaths from those drugs during the same time period more than doubled, rising to 1,656 in 2016 from 726 in 2015.
Due to the progressive nature of this issue, a statewide strategy for reducing overdose deaths related to pharmaceutical opioids and heroin called the Overdose Response Program (ORP). This program was launched in 2014 to train and certify qualified individuals most able to assist someone at risk of dying from an opioid overdose when emergency medical services are not immediately available. Successfully trained individuals will receive a certificate allowing them to obtain a prescription for naloxone (Narcan®), a life-saving medication that can quickly restore the breathing of a person who has overdosed on heroin or prescription opioid pain medication like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, or methadone.
What is drug addiction?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.
These brain changes can be persistent, which is why drug addiction is considered a "relapsing" disease — people in recovery from drug use disorders are at increased risk for returning to drug use even after years of not taking the drug. It's common for a person to relapse, but relapse doesn't mean that treatment doesn’t work. As with other chronic health conditions, treatment should be ongoing and should be adjusted based on how the patient responds. Treatment plans need to be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as powerful pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and many others utilized for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. Repeated administration of opioids (prescription or heroin) can cause the production of endogenous opioids (growing from within), which accounts in part for the discomfort that ensues when the drugs are discontinued, better known as withdrawal. Opioid medications can produce a sense of well-being and pleasure because they affect brain regions involved in reward.
The emergence of chemical tolerance toward prescribed opioids combined with an increasing difficulty to obtain opioids after a prescription runs out is often thought to explain the transition to abuse of heroin, which is cheaper and, in some communities, easier to obtain than prescription opioids.
Possible health effects of opioids include pain relief, drowsiness, nausea, constipation, euphoria, and confusion. When used in combination with alcohol, opioids can cause a dangerous slowing of heart rate and breathing leading to coma or death. Restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, and leg movements are all common withdrawal symptoms.
Resources for responsible medication management
Visit HealthyStMarys.com/SmartRX for more information about a variety of opioid-related topics including alternative treatments for chronic pain, the prescription drug monitoring program and the harms and benefits of opioid therapy. Contact information for area treatment options are also available on this site.
Opioid response program
Through its Overdose Response Program (ORP), the St. Mary’s County Health Department provides free training for community members who may be able to save the life of someone experiencing breathing problems from opioid overdose.
Participants learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of opioid overdose, the importance of calling 911 in medical emergencies, as well as how to administer naloxone and care for someone until emergency help arrives.
Successfully trained individuals receive a certificate allowing them to obtain naloxone (Narcan®), a life-saving medication that can quickly restore the breathing of a person who has overdosed on heroin or prescription opioid pain medication like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, or methadone.
Please contact the St. Mary's County Health Department at 301-475-4297 if you have any questions about overdose prevention.
Learn more about the Opioid Response Plan (ORP)
Dispose of medicines properly
Consumers can help reduce prescription drug abuse rates by safely disposing of prescriptions through participation in the St. Mary’s County Drug Drop-Off Program. The St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office has a prescription drug drop-off available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s located in the front lobby of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office in Leonardtown and is completely anonymous. Simply remove all identifying information on labels and place in one of the two drop boxes.