Facts about opioid users (that may surprise you)

3:11 PM, Dec 15, 2017

Drug addiction has become a national epidemic. It is now more important than ever for people to become educated about what drug use and addiction mean.

“What we must understand is that drug use is a preventable behavior but addiction is a treatable disease of the brain. The most important thing to remember when dealing with a loved one with disease is that recovery is possible,” notes Andrea G. Barthwell, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Treatment Management Behavioral Health (TMBH) and former deputy drug czar to President George W. Bush.

The phrase “drug addicts” might bring to mind people living on the street or doing anything they can for their next hit. While that exists, it is not how the majority of addicts live.

In fact, with more than 23 million Americans dependent on drugs, according to a report by Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap, many live what might be considered regular lives, working jobs and hiding their condition.

One addiction that is easy to hide and has seen recent exponential growth is to prescription opioids, pain relievers that include methadone, oxycodone (such as OxyContin) and hydrocodone (such as Vicodin).

“The new epidemic created by the over prescription of opioid pain relievers has everyone talking,” addictionblog.org says. “The reality is that access to pain meds is relatively easy, inexpensive and creating new addicts every day.”


While drug use is often attributed to young people, the fastest growing group of opioid addicts is people ages 50-69, according to Medscape Medical News. Some triggers unique to seniors include retirement, death of a loved one, having to move and mental or physical decline, according to Addiction Center.

That said, while people 40 and older are more likely to use opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those age 25-54 are more likely to die from an overdose.


Women are more likely than men to use opioids, but men are more likely to die from an overdose, according to the CDC.

“When women use drugs, there is a further complication called “telescoping.” The disease advances faster in woman than men and more importantly, they are more likely than men to have a using partner,” reports Dr. Barthwell. “Additionally, a woman is more likely to have a major psychological diagnosis which worsens outcomes without special care for both diagnoses.”

What may be surprising is, when it comes to overdose deaths, the gap between genders is closing, the CDC says. Additionally, women are more likely to be given higher doses of pain reliever drugs and become dependent on them more quickly than men, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

“For most age groups, men have higher rates of use or dependence on illicit drugs and alcohol than do women,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse says. “However, women are just as likely as men to become addicted. In addition, women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse, which are key phases of the addiction cycle.”



Income and resources

Although opioid prescriptions are more common for patients with a high socioeconomic status, according to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, overdose deaths are more common for people with a low socioeconomic status.

The keys to understanding this peculiar situation are social and economic factors, according to research in Public Health Reports.

“They affect health indirectly by shaping individual drug-use behavior; they affect health directly by affecting the availability of resources, access to social welfare systems, marginalization and compliance with medication,” the researchers write.

Legal drugs obtained illegally

The reason for these unexpected faces of addiction may stem from the fact that opioids are legal, versus heroin or cocaine, and addicts often are put on the road to addiction through an innocent prescription. Over time, patients may doctor-shop, visiting many doctors to refill a prescription.

Overwhelmingly, though, the most common way to get opioids for illegal use is from a loved one.

How to help

“The more we know about the complexity of addiction, the better. Professionals can treat it more effectively and advocate for people with the disease,” says Dr. Barthwell.

Addiction affects both the user and the family. Neither can recover unless the system in which the using changes. The family can help the addicted person get help, the family can get help to learn how to change the system around the addicted person, or the whole family system can get help.

If resources are in short supply, the individual and the family can go to 12-step meetings which are readily available in many cities. Most people recommend going to at least six meetings to see if they help.

Another technique is to do an intervention to get your loved one to accept care. 

“I always remind families that no one will love your son, daughter, mother, uncle, etc… as much as you do. Never give up on that person. Love them until they can love themselves enough to get help,” says Dr. Barthwell.