With 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014, the United States is fighting to ease the problem of opioid addiction.

The problem of prescription drug abuse and overdose is caused by factors such as the prescriptions by healthcare providers, lack of oversight to curb inappropriate prescribing, and the belief that prescription drugs are not dangerous.

Opioids are drugs that interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects. These include heroin as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), of the 21.5 million Americans who had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million were addicted to prescription pain relievers and 586,000 took heroin. For lawmakers in the U.S., this spreading epidemic is at the top of their priority list.

Naltrexone and addiction

Most medications used to treat addiction require taking a daily dose and are addictive or habit-forming, so sticking to these medicines for a longer period is another problem in itself. But drug naltrexone, or Vivitrol, used for reducing opioid abuse, is different as it needs to be taken monthly as compared to other medications which are to be taken daily.

Vivitrol, which is an extended release, injectable form of naltrexone, requires patients to abstain from opioids for a period prior to induction, a goal difficult for patients to meet. The drug works by blocking euphoric and sedative effects of illicit drugs such as heroin, morphine and codeine.

Unlike other drugs, such as buprenorphine and methadone that activate opioid receptors in the body that suppress cravings, naltrexone binds and blocks opioid receptors to reduce opioid cravings. Hence, addicts do not have a chance for abuse with naltrexone. The drug is slowly absorbed into the system of an addict over 28 days, making the body opioid-free, and even in case of relapses, it prevents the feeling of getting high.

Therapists recommend the use of Vivitrol injections for 12 to 18 months, coupled with an intense therapy. Each Vivitrol injection costs about $1,200, but due to its effectiveness, some insurance companies now cover the treatment.

To ensure patients’ access to safer, more effective pain treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse these drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come up with guidelines for prescribing opioids. These guidelines include: determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain outside end-of-life care; opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up and discontinuation; assessing risk and addressing harms of opioid use.

Making help available

A habitual opioid use may produce noticeable behavioral or personality changes, including irritability, restlessness and anxiety. The body of an addict builds a tolerance to the increased levels of the drug, causing long-term changes in the brain’s reward system. Opioid dependence can have far-reaching impacts, affecting almost every organ in the human body. It may interfere with an individual’s ability to make decisions and can lead to frequent cravings. This is when a person needs professional help to get rid of this devastating habit to reclaim a normal life.

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