As Philadelphia continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is still facing an opioid use and overdose epidemic. Every neighborhood across our city and country is affected as well as all racial and ethnic groups. Addiction to opioids can happen to anyone, no matter age, gender, income, or family upbringing. As we celebrate Recovery Month 2020, we must do all we can to support those struggling with this addiction so that they, too, can experience recovery.

What exactly are Opioids? 

Opioids are a class of drugs prescribed to relieve pain (often termed, ‘pain killers.’) Common brand names include: OxyContin® and Percocet® (oxycodone) Vicodin® (hydrocodone), and Kadian (morphine.) When appropriately prescribed by a doctor, opioids help the brain block the feeling of pain and help many people to cope with the pain caused by surgery, physical trauma, and chronic ailments. Also included in the opioids class is the illegal drug heroin (which is chemically similar to prescription opioids), and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

The Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical academic center, notes that people who take potentially addictive drugs as prescribed rarely abuse them or become addicted. But taking them not as prescribed or for an extended time increases the risk of misuse and addiction. Once addicted, it is challenging to stop continued use. When a person is addicted to a drug, they will continue to use the drug even when it makes their lives much worse.

Misusing or abusing opioids can result in severe physical, neurological, and psychological damage. Misuse includes taking more than prescribed by a doctor, taking another person’s medication, or using the prescription to get high. If prescribed and non-prescribed drugs are misused, it can lead to a substance use disorder leading to life-long addiction, possible overdose, and sometimes death.

Because prescribed opioids can be more expensive and harder to obtain when not under medical prescription, some people turn to heroin instead. A study conducted by The National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that approximately one-third of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder reported heroin as the first opioid they regularly used to get high.

Despite the devastating effects opioid addiction can cause, recovery from the disease of addiction is possible.  Although the recovery road is hard to travel, people can recover with treatment, professional guidance, family, and peer support. It can take several tries before a person feels healthy again.

Contrary to the myth that a person must reach “rock bottom” to begin to heal, recovery can start at any time. There are many treatment options right here in Philadelphia, including medically assisted treatment and behavioral therapies shown to help people with opioid addiction.

No matter insurance status or addiction challenge, any Philadelphian can begin their recovery journey by connecting with DBHIDS.  Any Pennsylvanian resident can go here for treatment and support. Anyone seeking treatment options within the United States can link to SAMHSA’s Opioid Treatment Directory. 

What are common signs that someone may be abusing opioids or have opioid addiction? 

The Mayo Clinic and suggest looking for the following signs:

  1. Mood changes, including excessive swings from elation to hostility
  2. Changes in sleep patterns, bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual, changes in weight and appearance
  3. Neglecting friends or family, secretive and sneaky behavior
  4. Neglecting responsibilities at school, work, or home
  5. Problems in relationships, such as fights with a partner or family members, or the loss of friends
  6. Regularly taking an opioid in a way not prescribed by a doctor.
  7. Taking opioids “just in case,” even when not in pain
  8. Borrowing medication from other people or “losing” medications so that another prescription can be requested.
  9. Seeking the same prescription from multiple doctors, needing to have a “backup” supply.
  10. Use of drugs to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, restlessness, insomnia, depression, sweating, shaking, and anxiety
  11. Needing more of the drug to experience the same effects once felt with smaller amounts
  12. Poor decision-making, including putting himself or herself and others in hazardous life-threatening situations.
  13. Continued use despite knowing the terrible consequences.
  14. Loss of control over drug use. Blackouts, financial and legal problems, physical illness, depression, paranoia, inability to control actions.
  15.  Taking more drugs than planned, wanting to stop using, but feeling powerless.

What to do in case of an overdose 

Unfortunately, an overdose is something that can happen to someone who is addicted to opioids.

When people overdose on opioids, their breathing often slows or stops. An overdose can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, potentially causing a coma, permanent brain damage, or death.  

What are the signs of an overdose?

  • Slow, shallow, or no detectable breathing
  • Unresponsive or unconscious
  • Pale, blue, or gray lips, face, and nail beds
  • Loud snoring or gurgling noise
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or no pulse

You may find yourself in a situation where you are the only one who can help to save their life before professional support arrives.  To be ready for a possible overdose, you can attend a no-cost, brief training to learn how to save the life of someone you know who struggles with opioid abuse or addiction.

Save a life. No-cost Virtual Naloxone Overdose Reversal Training

The City of Philadelphia is working to save lives, improve access to help, and reverse the adverse effects opioids have had on our communities. You can sign up for a live virtual overdose awareness and reversal training covering the basics of reversing an opioid overdose (using naloxone) and additional COVID-19 risk reduction tips. Those who register & provide a shipping address can receive naloxone mailed to them after the training.


Caring about someone addicted to opioids

Caring for someone addicted to opioids can take a significant toll on your physical and mental health. There is the constant worry that something terrible will happen, feelings of guilt, anger, avoidance, and false hope that the problem will disappear somehow. There can be feelings of embarrassment in front of others, a need to make excuses, or feelings of hopelessness and loss. If this sounds like your experience, you are not alone. You can connect with others through support groups who can relate to what you are going through.

Your health as a caregiver

If you are not feeling well physically or mentally because someone you care about has an addiction, share how you feel with your doctor or a trusted person. Seek support for yourself so that you have the strength to care for someone else. Caring for someone struggling with addiction is extremely difficult, and you should not have to do this alone.

What you can do right now

If someone you care about is addicted to opioids, talk to their doctor as soon as possible; the sooner someone gets help, the better. Learn as much as you can about addiction and treatment, attend an overdose reversal training, and take care of yourself.  Remember, recovery is possible! With treatment and support, people can, and do, overcome addiction to opioids.


What is substance abuse treatment? A booklet for families.

Narcotics Anonymous Find a support group.

Narcotics Anonymous Groups for Family & Friends of a person struggling with addiction.

Think you might need help?  You or someone you care about can take an anonymous, no cost mental health or substance use screening here.

Author: Maria Boswell, Director, Health Promotion, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS)