The Opioid Epidemic and Older Adults: What You Need to Know

Though they are highly addictive, opioids are commonly prescribed to older adults suffering from chronic pain and physical illness. Here are some things you should know when discussing treatment options with your physician:

What are opioids?

Opioids are drugs used to treat moderate to severe pain. Common prescription opioids include: oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and methadone. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved to relieve severe pain. However, some fentanyl is illegally made and distributed. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

What is the opioid epidemic?

Opioids were prescribed at an increased rate in the late 1990s after pharmaceutical companies affirmed they were not addictive. This resulted in the misuse of prescription and non-prescription opioids. It later became clear that opioids were highly addictive. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in 2017. Approximately 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

How are older adults affected?

Older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic pain and physical illnesses making them more susceptible to the addictive properties of prescription opioids.

How can opioid misuse be prevented?

  • Never take opioids in greater amounts or frequency than prescribed
  • Don’t sell or share opioids
  • Store opioids in a safe place, where others can’t access them
  • Properly dispose of unused opioids – click here to learn how.

What is an opioid overdose?

An opioid overdose occurs when opioids are taken in greater amounts than prescribed. Signs of an overdose can include:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Labored breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Limp body
  • Pale, blue or cold skin

An overdose is dangerous and can be fatal.

Can an opioid overdose be reversed?

When used right away, naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose. It can restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped. Learn more about naloxone and where to find it here.

How is opioid addiction treated?

Opioid addiction treatments include medicine and behavioral therapy. If you or someone you know needs help for substance abuse, talk to your doctor or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).