By April N. Kapu, DNP, APRN, ACNP- BC, FAANP, FCCM, FAAN
August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event that aims to end overdose, remember without stigma those who have died or are permanently injured and acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind. This day raises awareness of the issue and stimulates action and discussion about overdose prevention and drug policy.
The U.S. was facing an opioid epidemic when COVID-19 struck. Tragically, overdose deaths have only accelerated during the pandemic. Between June 2019 and May 2020, 81,230 people died of an overdose, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period. Synthetic opioids (like fentanyl) appear to be a primary cause for this increase.
It’s important to recognize the escalating impact opioid use disorder (OUD) is having on our families, neighbors and communities, as well as on our nation’s health. Overdoses — fueled by misuse and addiction to prescription opioid pain relievers, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids and heroin — represent a national health crisis that impacts our social and economic welfare.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any person who takes an opioid is potentially at risk of experiencing an overdose. Some demographic factors and behaviors significantly increase risk. These include:
- Having certain medical conditions, such as sleep apnea and reduced kidney or liver function, can increase your risk of overdose. Consult your health care provider.
- Taking opioids at age 65 or older can increase overdose risk.
- Combining opioids with alcohol.
- Taking certain other drugs in conjunction with an opioid.
- Using prescription opioids at high daily dosages.
- Exceeding the provider-recommended dosage of prescribed opioids.
- Taking illegal opioids, like heroin or illicitly-manufactured fentanyl, which are especially dangerous and may contain additional unknown, harmful substances.
What is our nation doing to combat the opioid crisis and prevent further overdose? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is focusing its efforts on five major priorities:
- Improving access to treatment and recovery services.
- Promoting the use of overdose-reversing drugs.
- Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance.
- Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction.
- Advancing better practices for pain management.
There are a variety of ways in which you or a loved one who is struggling with OUD can receive help and overcome this disease. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the use of medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a whole-patient treatment approach. Research shows that a combination of medication and counseling can successfully treat these disorders, and for some people struggling with addiction, MATs can help sustain recovery and help prevent or reduce opioid overdose.
Nurse practitioners (NPs), with graduate degrees and advanced clinical training, are well positioned to assess patients, order and interpret diagnostic tests, develop treatment plans and prescribe MATs. NPs are also more likely to practice in rural and underserved regions, particularly in states experiencing higher rates of overdoses and OUD.
This International Overdose Awareness Day, let’s remember those who are battling OUD and those we have lost to this devastating disease, comfort their families and spread the message that treatment to help patients combat OUD exists. You can join local events occurring throughout the U.S., such as walks, vigils and educational opportunities. If you or a loved one is experiencing OUD, contact your NP or the health care provider of your choice. We stand ready with help and hope.