There are several important factors to consider when examining the relationship between COVID-19 and prescription opioid abuse. Understanding how COVID-19 can influence the misuse of opioids, and vice versa, could prove invaluable—especially if opioid addiction has affected you or a loved one. Read on for important insights about opioids and preventing an addiction relapse during the age of COVID-19.
Could COVID-19 Treatment Trigger Opioid Abuse Relapse?
The severe body aches, intestinal pain, and headaches that COVID-19 triggers can raise the risk of someone returning to prescription opioids, Bankole Johnson, MD, a Miami-based addiction treatment expert, tells WebMD Connect to Care.
Opioid misuse has several potentially grave consequences, at least one of which has been magnified during the pandemic. In June 2021, the American Medical Association confirmed that that every U.S. state had reported a spike or uptick in the number of overdose-related deaths during the pandemic.
Additionally, there are important considerations regarding the use of opioids during COVID-19 treatment. “A lot of COVID-19 patients who have difficulty breathing complain of incredible pains and body aches,” Johnson says. “That’s an issue because you don’t want to give these people opioids unless they are on a ventilator, since opioids suppress your immune response.”
There are other public health issues to consider as well. According to Johnson, rising opioid abuse can weaken the immune system and therefore make people, especially the elderly, more vulnerable to getting the virus and less able to fight off COVID-19 symptoms.
Strategies to Prevent Relapse
Recommended strategies to prevent opioid relapse remain very relevant as COVID-19 exerts pressure on our society. According to Johnson, the following are strategies to prevent relapse:
- Work with your doctor to create a pain-management plan that considers all options (including treatment with opioid alternatives). Examples, according to Johnson, are treatments with hyperbaric oxygen to reduce inflammation and non-invasive brain stimulations to change the pattern of opioid reliance.
- Strictly follow dosage and frequency recommendations on the labels of prescription opioids. Also per the label, don’t take opioids with alcohol or other sedating medications. “It has been obvious in this pandemic that people who are using alcohol or other substances have tended to increase the dose, which comes to light when they go back to their doctor,” Johnson says.
- Consult with your doctor about whether you can gradually taper off prescription opioids. “A lot of people have been taking opioids for a long time without changing the dose,” Johnson says. You may want to ask your doctor if the dose can be reduced.
- Don’t neglect emotional and psychological health, even if COVID-19 forces your sessions with a mental healthcare provider to be remote rather than in-person.
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Editor's Note: Many advocates have moved away from the term "abuse" in an effort to destigmatize addiction and conditions related to it. However, those experiencing addiction who are interested in locating treatment may encounter the term occasionally.