Opioid addiction has become a public health crisis

For years, doctors have relied upon opioid pain drugs to provide pain relief to their patients. However, while opioid pain drugs have helped many people, they come with a heavy risk of addiction.

USA image Opioid misuse and addiction is widespread in the United States.
More than 4 million people take opioid drugs not prescribed by their doctors.
Almost 1/3 of people with chronic pain become addicted to an opioid drug.
  • What are opioids?

    Opioids are a type of narcotic pain drug that are typically used to treat acute, or short-term, pain.

    Commonly used legal opioids include:

    • Morphine
    • Fentanyl
    • Codeine
    • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
    • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
    • Meperidine (Demerol)
    • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)

    A common illegal opioid is heroin.

  • How opioids work

    Opioid pain drugs treat pain by attaching to the pleasure centers of the brain, creating  a feeling of happiness or well-being. The pain signals are still there, but the drug helps mask them by making the feeling of pleasure stronger than the pain.

    Over time, a person becomes dependent on the opioid. At the same time, the pleasure centers get used to the opioids and a higher dose is required (this is called drug tolerance). This physical dependency becomes addiction when using the drug interferes with a person’s daily life, job and responsibilities.


  • Recognizing opioid misuse

    While opioids can be taken safely to help treat acute, or short-term pain, like an injury or after a surgery, prolonged use can lead to dependence and possible misuse.

    Here are some signs that someone may be misusing opioids:

    • Changes in appearance and behavior, including how the person acts around people
    • Poor work or school performance
    • Missing work or school
    • Switching groups of friends
    • Changes in physical or behavioral health
    • Increased dangerous behavior
    • Taking opioid medicine after the injury or illness is healed

    Side effects of opioid dependence include:

    • Increased sensitivity to pain
    • Constipation
    • Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth
    • Depression
    • Sleepiness and dizziness
    • Itching and sweating
    • Addiction
    • Death

    Symptoms of an opioid overdose include:

    • Small pupils
    • Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
    • Slow, shallow breathing
    • Choking or gurgling sounds
    • Limp body
    • Pale, blue or cold skin

  • How you can help someone that is misusing opioids

    Professionals say opioid misuse should be treated like a chronic illness. It’s important to manage expectations and understand that asking someone to stop often does not work and can lead to frustration for both parties. Here are some suggestions that have been shown to be successful:

    • Educate yourself on their illness. With better understanding, you can help reduce the stigma of substance misuse
    • Join them in exploring their treatment options
    • Give support without judgement
    • Let them know they are not alone
    • Find caregiver support (e.g. support group) for your own well-being, and know you are not alone either

    Three things you can do to help end the epidemic:

    1. Never sell or share prescription opioids
    2. Never use someone else’s prescription opioids
    3. Store opioids in a safe, secure place


    Recovery through treatment has been shown to be very successful.

    There are many treatment options, including new medication-assisted treatments (MATs) such as:

    • Methadone
    • Buprenorphine (Butrans®, Subutex®, Belbuca®)
    • Naltrexone (Vivitrol®, Revia®, Depade®)

  • Teens and opioid misuse

    Opioid misuse is especially dangerous for teens and young adults. That’s because our brains continue to develop well into our twenties and opioid misuse can interfere with that development, making it hard to function as an adult.

    How do teens get opioids?

    It’s easier than you think for teens to get opioids. Common sources include:

    • Their own prescriptions from an injury or surgery
    • Prescriptions of their parents or caregivers
    • Friends, or in other people’s homes
    • Friends of family members who share or sell them
    • Dealers (often fellow students)
    • Online

    While the teen death rate from drug overdoses had been declining since 2007, that rate reversed in 2015 when 772 teens 15-19 years old died nationwide.

    Three ways you can help prevent opioid misuse among teens

    1. Safely dispose of old prescriptions when you are done with them.
    2. Talk to your teen about your concerns and challenges.
    3. If your teen is injured or undergoing surgery, and the doctor is recommending an opioid medication, discuss your concerns with the doctor and ask about alternatives.
    4. Be sure to keep prescription opioid medications and other closely controlled prescriptions in a located cabinet or safe in your house.

    If you think your teen or adolescent is misusing opioids, discuss your concerns with their doctor.

  • Talk to your doctor before taking an opioid medication

    It’s always important to discuss your treatment options with your doctor, especially when it comes to the management of pain with opioids. Here are some questions you should consider asking:

    • Is an opioid the right kind of medicine for me?
    • How long will I have to take this medication?
    • Does the medication have any side effects?
    • Should I start with a lower dose or fewer pills?
    • Is it okay to take an opioid with the other prescription drugs I am taking?
    • If I have any medication leftover, how can I get rid of it safely?
    • Should I still take an opioid if I have a history of substance abuse?
    • Is it okay to take this medicine if I have a family history of addiction?

    Ask your doctor about alternatives to opioid medication.

    MVP and our medical management team are working with medical professionals to help fight opioid addiction and support those who suffer from opioid misuse. That’s why we cover a wide variety of prescription drugs that are alternatives to opioids. Ask your doctor for details.

  • Additional Resources

    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

    National Hotline


    New York State HOPEline


    Vermont Department of Health


    For the safe disposal of unused opioids, Drug Take Back programs and others support:



    If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and/or breastfeeding:



If you or someone you know is addicted to opioids, support is only a phone call away:

 Call MVP at 1-888-687-6277 (TTY: 711).