Between 1999 and 2019, nearly half a million people died due to an overdose involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Opioid addiction affects people from all walks of life, yet many continue to treat the disease as something that can’t happen to them or a loved one. It’s time to disprove these stigmatizing, harmful myths about opioid addiction.
Myth 1: Prescription opioids are less addictive.
Because prescription opioids have a legitimate medical use, some people believe they are less harmful, or that addiction to them is less likely to be fatal. However, the CDC reports that prescription opioids were actually the animating factor behind the first wave of the opioid addiction epidemic, which began in the 1990s.
While we are now in the third wave of the opioid epidemic and CDC data shows that illicit fentanyl has become a significant contributor to overdose fatalities, it's important to note that both prescription and illicit opioids can still be dangerous. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that overdose fatalities involving prescription opioids have increased significantly since 1999.
Prescription opioid abuse can also contribute to heroin addiction, since a small percentage of those who misuse prescription opioids escalate to illicit heroin use. One factor that might drive this trend is the lower cost of heroin, according to NIDA.
Myth 2: Drug addiction is a choice.
Drug addiction changes a person’s brain, nurturing emotional and physical dependence that keeps a person using even when drug use hurts them. Opioid withdrawal can cause painful and uncomfortable side effects, and may even make you severely ill. This often makes quitting feel impossible.
Drug addiction is a complex medical issue that involves physical and psychological dependence. The brain chemistry of someone experiencing opioid use disorder compels them to keep using.
"Addiction is not a choice, and those experiencing addiction therefore cannot simply give up their habit based on willpower alone. It is entirely discretionary for a person to begin as an occasional drug user,” Leslia Bashioum, MS, LPC, an Addiction Counselor, tells WebMD Connect to Care. "But continued use of addictive drugs affects your brain over time—sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but almost always in ways that lead to obsessive and even uncontrollable drug usage."
Myth 3: Opioid addiction medications are harmful.
Methadone, which is technically an opioid, can actually help treat addiction by easing the symptoms of withdrawal and empowering a person to slowly wean themselves off of the opioid they are misusing. Although methadone is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of opioid use disorder, detractors contribute to stigma by asserting that this legitimate and effective therapeutic intervention is merely substituting one drug for another.
However, using methadone and other FDA-approved medications for addiction treatment, under careful and accredited medical care, can be vital for addiction recovery. Medication-assisted treatment is an evidence-based form of treatment, and not a drug substitution program.
“Medications can play an important role in treatment by aiding in managing withdrawal symptoms, preventing relapse, and treating co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression, which sometimes contribute to the person’s addiction,” Bashioum says. “The best treatment programs will provide a combination of therapy and medication treatment to meet the needs of the individual.”
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If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.