The opioid crisis explained

The opioid crisis is frequently mentioned in the news and seems to be getting worse. What is the crisis and how has it got so bad? Where can you turn if you are suffering from opioid addiction?

The opioid crisis, or opioid epidemic, refers to the increasing number of deaths and hospitalisations caused by opioids. The crisis is a huge issue in North America, but opioid misuse is also becoming a global health problem.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drug derived from the opium poppy. Some opioids, such as morphine, occur naturally. Others, known as synthetic opioids, are manufactured. These include fentanyl, tramadol, methadone and heroin.

Opioids are associated with pain relief: many legal opioids (morphine, codeine, hydrocodone…) are prescribed by doctors as pain killers. But opioids also evoke a feeling of euphoria so taking prescribed opioids can lead to misuse, dependence and addiction.

How did the crisis start?

The rise of the global opioid epidemic started in the 90s in the United States when pharmaceutical companies started to push synthetic opioids to doctors. Despite limited data, they claimed the drugs were not addictive and had no dangerous side-effects.

Doctors began writing an excessive amount of prescriptions for synthetic opioids which quickly caused an increase of prescriptions in many nations. While they were initially used to manage extreme and chronic pain, they started to be issued for short-lived pain, such as a sprained ankle or toothache.

The distribution of prescribed synthetic opioids has now reached extremely high levels. Between 1991 and 2009, the number of prescriptions written for opioids increased by 300% in the USA and by 850% in Canada.

Why is it such a big problem?

As opioids are so addictive, a lot of people misuse their prescription, e.g. they take larger doses than prescribed in order to experience a better high. When their prescription runs out, many look for alternatives. Sometimes this involves purchasing ‘legal opioids’ that have been manufactured illegally, but these are expensive. For a cheap and strong high, many start using heroin. 4 out of 5 new heroin users said they misused prescription opioids before trying heroin.

In 2015, roughly 118,000 people worldwide died from opioid overdoses and opioid misuse. The opioid crisis has got so bad in the USA that schools have started to train staff on how to treat students if they overdose.

Where can you turn for help?

If you are suffering from opioid addiction, visit your local doctor. He/she can refer you to a specialist or a rehab centre that provides support and treatment. You can also check your country’s national health website for support and advice on where to seek treatment.

There are also many websites that offer support and advice, such as and

Some expat health insurance packages provide coverage for addiction treatment, such as inpatient/outpatient rehab and inpatient/outpatient detox. Check your coverage details and contact your insurance provider to find out what help and treatment you are covered for.

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