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Drug Overdose Trends, Disclosed



Drug overdose is a growing epidemic not only in the United States but in many other countries in Europe. 

For those who don’t know, drug overdoses occur when someone accidentally or intentionally takes too much of a drug and it kills them by shutting down vital functions in their body. 

These deaths result from any type of drug prescription medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin) or hydrocodone (Vicodin), illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and, other street drugs like synthetic cannabinoids known as K2/Spice; even alcohol can be dangerous if consumed at high levels.

Table of Contents

Overdose cases have increased in both urban and rural areas

The number of drug overdose cases increased in both urban and rural areas. 

While there are fewer fatalities in rural areas, the total number of overdoses rose slightly faster in rural communities than in urban ones.

The reasons for this increase are not clear, but it is likely due to increased opioid use. 

The rate of deaths from drug overdoses has been climbing steadily since 1999 when only 5 percent of Americans used opioids recreationally or medically—and now more than half do so. 

Many people who take prescription painkillers turn to heroin after their supply runs out because it’s cheaper and easier to get than prescription pills.


Opioid drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old

In the United States, for instance, opioid overdoses are the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old. And deaths from these overdoses have increased by 23% since 2016.

In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from a drug overdose—and more than 50% of those deaths were attributed to opioids (including heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl). 

The highest number of overdose deaths occurred in people aged 25–54 years; nearly two-thirds (64%) of those who died were male.

Opioid overdoses occur most often in non-urban areas: From 2006 to 2016, rural counties experienced an average annual increase in deaths involving prescription opioids that were five times greater than urban counties’ increases over this same period.


Deaths from fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, have doubled every year since 2013

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that’s 100 times stronger than morphine. It’s used legally in medicine but can also be sold illegally on the street.

First responders have reported several cases of people overdosing from fentanyl after touching it or inhaling aerosolized particles from the drug. 

In one incident, an officer became ill after his shirt brushed against a white powder on a car seat while arresting two suspects who were later found to have fentanyl and heroin.

In some parts of Canada, including Vancouver and Ottawa, paramedics have been told not to wear gloves when dealing with suspected overdoses because they can absorb the drug through their skin or accidentally touch their face or mouth before putting on protective equipment like masks and eye shields.


Synthetic opioids other than methadone are now the most commonly-involved drug in overdose deaths

  • The most common synthetic opioids involved in overdose deaths are fentanyl, carfentanil, and other synthetic drugs. These substances are used to produce heroin and sold on the street as illicit narcotics.
  • Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s sometimes administered to patients who suffer from chronic or cancer-related pain because it can be absorbed through the skin or mucosa (the lining of the nose and mouth), allowing for less frequent injections than liquid medications like morphine or Dilaudid (hydromorphone).
  • Fentanyl has been used by illegal drug producers since at least 2014 as an additive to heroin—and possibly even earlier—for dealers to increase their profits by selling more products per kilogram of powder. In addition, some dealers may have been unaware that they were selling fentanyl products instead of pure heroin during this period.


Overdoses involving prescription opioids have decreased since their peak in 2010

The good news is that since 2010, prescription opioid abuse has decreased. The bad news is that heroin use has increased.

Prescription opioids are more expensive and harder to get than street heroin, which is cheaper and easier to obtain. 

Heroin can be sold in small amounts—a few dollars worth of powder or a baggie of liquid—so it’s easy for dealers to sell just enough to feed the addiction of those who are already hooked on opioids or looking for an inexpensive high. 

Some people have switched from taking prescription opioids like Percocet or OxyContin (both Schedule II narcotics) because they’re too expensive, while others have turned away from heroin after overdosing on it within the past year (three-quarters reported using alcohol as a substance).


Heroin use continues to rise, but deaths involving heroin have remained steady since 2012

The numbers reflect that the heroin epidemic is still very much alive. Since 2012, deaths involving heroin have remained steady at around 8,000 per year. 

In comparison to other opioids like methadone and fentanyl (which are also increasingly being used), heroin is considered more dangerous because it requires a smaller number of drugs to cause an overdose.

Heroin users are also more likely to be aged 18-29 years old than any other age group—and that’s even after heroin use decreased by 14% among teen users between 2017 and 2018.


More men die from drug overdoses than women

Men are more likely to use drugs, and also more likely to die from drug overdoses. 

Women, on the other hand, are generally prescribed painkillers at higher rates than men. 

This can lead to addiction that makes women less likely to seek treatment for their addictions, or even see them as problematic in the first place (because it’s just “a pill”).


Drug overdose rates are on the rise, but there is hope in this growing crisis

Drug overdose is a growing problem in the United States, but some strategies and interventions can help address the crisis. 

The following paragraphs provide an overview of the public health response to overdose prevention, intervention, and treatment.

Overdose can be prevented by:

  • Preventing substance use disorder through education, screening, and early identification services, such as school-based programs or mobile van services;
  • Providing medications for opioid dependence—such as methadone maintenance therapy or buprenorphine—as part of a comprehensive treatment approach;
  • Making naloxone available to people who may witness an opioid overdose so they can give it immediately when needed; and
  • They are placing first responders (e.g., police officers) trained in using naloxone in communities where drug overdoses are common (e.g., urban areas).


There is a lot of hope in this growing crisis. There are many resources available to you if you or someone you know may be struggling with substance use disorders. 

If you are at risk for an overdose or think someone else may need help, please call 911 immediately or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. 

You can also speak with a trained specialist who can assist with treatment options and other recommendations for care.


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