Women and Heroin Addiction

Women and Heroin Addiction

Earlier this month, we heard from Chrysalis grantees that the newest and most  difficult problem they face in the women and girls they serve is addiction to heroin.

 Heroin is in a class of drugs known as opioids, which include prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl.  They work on a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine, which helps reduce pain and cause relaxation.  They are highly addictive, and progressive use leads to tolerance and dependence within the first few uses.  Most people who abuse prescription opioids get them by prescription or free from a friend or relative.

In 2012, nearly 260 million prescriptions were written for opioids – more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.  Prescribing rates for adolescents and young adults doubled between 1994 and 2007, and over one-third of adolescents using these drugs were addicted.  Most addicts surveyed in 2014 reported they chose to use heroin because prescription pills were “fare more expensive and harder to obtain.”

Prescription painkiller overdoses are an under-recognized  and growing problem for women, as the CDC reports about 18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the United States.  Here is an overview of this problem:

  • More than 5 times as many women died from prescription painkiller overdoses in 2010 as in 1999.
  • Women between the ages of 25 and 54 are more likely than other age groups to go to the emergency department from prescription painkiller misuse or abuse. Women ages 45 to 54 have the highest risk of dying from a prescription painkiller overdose.*
  • Non-Hispanic white and American Indian or Alaska Native women have the highest risk of dying from a prescription painkiller overdose.
  • Prescription painkillers are involved in 1 in 10 suicides among women.

The prescription painkiller program affects women differently than men:

  • Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription painkillers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer time periods than men.
  • Women may become dependent on prescription painkillers more quickly than men.
  • Women may be more likely than men to engage in “doctor shopping” (obtaining prescriptions from multiple prescribers).
  • Abuse of prescription painkillers by pregnant women can put an infant at risk. Cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—which is a group of problems that can occur in newborns exposed to prescription painkillers or other drugs while in the womb—grew by almost 300% in the US between 2000 and 2009.

Even more concerning, NBC  news reports there is a rapidly rising number of children dying from opioid abuse.   The number of children being treated in emergency rooms for drug overdose more than doubled over the last 15 years, with the greatest increase among children ages 1 to 4 years.  Most were accidental poisonings where the drug was not safely stored away from the reach of children.  But in teens ages 15 to 19, opioid poisonings by accident increased over 300%, and by attempted suicide by 140%.

Prevention is difficult but essential to stop the increasing number of addictions and deaths.  This not only involves warning adults of the danger of sharing prescriptions or leaving medications unlocked, but it requires each of us asking our physicians whether a prescription painkiller is necessary.  The safe use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is a lesson we include in our Chrysalis After-School program curriculum, and it’s taught by Drake University female pharmacy students.

 For the women and girls being served by our grantees, we need to help expand access to evidence-based substance abuse treatment and help reduce barriers to treatment for low-income women, such as lack of childcare.  And we need to continue helping organizations serving women and girls to access training and guidance to more effectively treat their clients.