Provisional data from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate there were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 2021, an increase of nearly 15% from the 93,655 deaths estimated in 2020. The 2021 increase was half of what it was a year ago, when overdose deaths rose 30% from 2019 to 2020.
The new data show overdose deaths involving opioids increased from an estimated 70,029 in 2020 to 80,816 in 2021. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl), psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, and cocaine also continued to increase in 2021 compared to 2020.
The biggest percentage increase in overdose deaths in 2021 occurred in Alaska, where deaths were up 75.3%, while overdose deaths in Wyoming did not increase at all in 2021 and deaths in Hawaii declined 1.8% from the same point in 2020.
What are Opioids? Opioids include illegal drugs such as heroin, as well as prescription medications used to treat pain such as morphine, codeine, methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percodan®, Percocet®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lortab®, Norco®), fentanyl (Duragesic®, Fentora®), hydromorphone (Dilaudid®, Exalgo®), and buprenorphine (Subutex®, Suboxone®). Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. In doing so, they minimize the body’s perception of pain. However, stimulating the opioid receptors or “reward centers” in the brain can also trigger other systems of the body, such as those responsible for regulating mood, breathing, and blood pressure.
How Does Overdose Occur? A variety of effects can occur after a person takes opioids, ranging from pleasure to nausea, vomiting, severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), and overdose, in which breathing and heartbeat slow or even stop. Opioid overdose can occur when a patient deliberately misuses a prescription opioid or an illicit drug such as heroin. It can also occur when a patient takes an opioid as directed, but the prescriber miscalculated the opioid dose or an error was made by the dispensing pharmacist or the patient misunderstood the directions for use. Also at risk are individuals who misuse opioids and combine them with sedative hypnotic agents resulting in sedation and respiratory depression
Who Is at Risk? Anyone who uses opioids for long-term management of chronic cancer or non-cancer pain is at risk for opioid overdose, as are persons who use heroin.
Others At Risk Include Persons Who Are:
- Receiving rotating opioid medication regimens (and thus are at risk for incomplete cross-tolerance).
- Discharged from emergency medical care following opioid intoxication or poisoning.
- At high risk for overdose because of a legitimate medical need for analgesia, coupled with a suspected or confirmed substance use disorder, or non-medical use of prescription or illicit opioids.
- Completing mandatory opioid detoxification or abstinence for a period of time (and presumably with reduced opioid tolerance and high risk of relapse to opioid use).
- Recently released from incarceration and who have a history of opioid use disorder (and presumably have reduced opioid tolerance and high risk of relapse to opioid use).