Health experts across the country agree, the global pandemic made the nation’s drug overdose epidemic even worse. The American Medical Association reports that every state in the U.S. has reported a spike or increase in overdose deaths or other problems during the COVID pandemic. However, pre-pandemic the numbers continued to increase. In Tennessee, 2,089 people died from an opioid overdose in 2019. That number is up significantly from the 1,304 opioid overdose deaths in 2018. Right now, the opioid epidemic is being fueled by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Overdose related to prescription opioids and heroin remain high and are increasingly mixed with illicit fentanyl.
All ages and communities are affected by opioid addiction. Treating and preventing opioid use disorder is a responsibility we all must share. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, 128 people in the United States die every day from an opioid overdose, but it’s important to know that opioid overdoses are reversable and preventable. Prescription opioids are found in millions of households across the country. In fact, the U.S. consumes most of the world's prescription opioid supply. The CDC even reported that there have been more opioid prescriptions reported in some states than there are people living in those states. Tennessee was close to that mark. According to TN Together, in 2020 there were 5,029,476 painkiller prescriptions filled in Tennessee, the population Census reported 6,910,840 in April, 2020.
The opioid epidemic’s effect on infants, children and teens is far reaching. Families may be broken apart when a parent is arrested and sent to jail for buying or selling opioids. Parents and caregivers who develop an addiction may become unable to prioritize the needs of their family and children. Babies exposed to opioids during pregnancy can be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS. Federal reports show that a baby with NAS was born every 15 minutes. In Tennessee, 927 infants were born with NAS in 2018. Doctors encourage pregnant women who use opioids to reach out for treatment and recovery care. Lastly, Children and teens hospitalized for opioid poisoning tripled between 1997 and 2012. Most of the overdose patients were teens, but the largest increase in poisonings was among toddlers and preschoolers. According to one study, children whose mothers are prescribed opioids face a much higher risk for unintentional overdose compared to children whose mothers received a non-opioid prescription, such as ibuprofen, for pain.
What can parents and caregivers do?
· Talk with your children. Children who learn about the risks of drugs at home are less likely to use drugs than those who don't learn this at home. Make sure they understand that it is illegal to share opioid medications. More than half of individuals 12 and older who used pain relievers nonmedically said they were given by, bought from, or taken from a friend or family member.
· Store your medications safely. Aside from keeping opioids and other prescription medicine in a secure place, count and monitor the number of pills you have regularly and lock them up.
· Dispose leftover prescription medication. Return any leftover prescriptions to a hospital, doctor’s office, or pharmacy. In Tennessee, there are several resources available to safely dispose of your prescription medication.
· Know what to do in an overdose emergency. Learn the signs of a possible overdose, such as, difficulty and shallow breathing, severe sleepiness, and not being able to wake up. Always call 911 if you believe someone is experiencing an overdose, even if you give them Naloxone.
· Learn how to reverse an overdose and carry naloxone. If you or someone you love is at risk of an opioid overdose, get trained on how to use naloxone through one of Tennessee’s Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists (ROPS). They can also connect you with naloxone for free or at a reduced price.
· Ask for help. If you think you or your child may be misusing opioids or developing addiction, don't hesitate to seek help. Opioid use disorder is a chronic, treatable condition that can be managed successfully with medication and recovery support services. TN Together provides addiction related resources and community solutions to this ongoing crisis. Call or text the TN Redline at 1.800.889.9789. Tennessee Faces of Opioids shows that behind the opioid statistics, there are people. You can learn about additional Tennesseans and their stories here.