What are opioids?

Opioids are a family of drugs related to opium, including heroin, fentanyl, morphine, codeine, and others. While heroin is illegal, other opioids are legal and available by prescription, usually for the treatment of pain. Opioids are effective and safe when taken in the appropriate doses and for short periods of time. However, they may produce a feeling of euphoria and can be misused for this purpose. Even when used as prescribed, their use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and potentially overdose and death.

The opioid epidemic

Drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than 6 out of 10) involve an opioid. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

From 2013 to 2015, opioid-related overdose deaths increased by:

  • 32 percent in the U.S. (Source: National Overdose Deaths from Select Prescription and Illicit Drugs, National Center on Health Statistics, CDC WONDER)
  • 16 percent in Illinois (Source: Illinois Department of Public Health) 
  • 16 percent in suburban Cook County (Source: Cook County Department of Public Health)

What is causing the increase in opioid deaths?

There is growing consensus that the increase in deaths from opioid overdose is linked to the overprescribing of prescription opioids in the last decade. Recent evidence demonstrates that nearly 80 percent of new heroin users previously used non-medical pain relievers. Deaths due to heroin have been increasing since 2007. However the largest recent increase in deaths from opioids is due to fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. From 2013 to 2015, heroin and opioid prescription pain relievers accounted for the majority of opioid-related overdose deaths in suburban Cook County: heroin (68 percent) and opioid pain relievers (20 percent).

Who is most at risk?

Opioid-related overdose deaths varied by demographic factors. In suburban Cook County in 2015, the age-adjusted rate of opioid-related overdose deaths for males (12.0 per 100,000) was more than double the rate for females (5.6 per 100,000). Among age groups, persons aged 25-34 years had the highest age-adjusted rate of opioid-related overdose deaths (19.6 per 100,000) and young adults aged 15-24 years had the lowest age-adjusted rate of opioid-related overdose deaths (6.1 per 100,000).

For more information

For more information on opioid overdose and prevention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.