The opioid epidemic is worsening due to synthetic versions of the drugs. Here's what that means.

  • The US opioid epidemic is worsening because of rising overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids, according to a new report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Synthetic opioids are highly potent painkillers that can be made by pharmaceutical companies or manufactured illicitly.Fentanyl is one example.
  • From 2016 to 2017, synthetic opioid-involved overdose death rates increased by 45.2%, the report CDC report said.

Last year, the US opioid epidemic continued “to worsen and evolve” thanks to synthetic drugs like fentanyl, a report published Friday by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

In 2017, drug overdoses led to 70,237 deaths, and more than two-thirds involved opioids. That marked an increase from the 63,632 overdose deaths reported in 2016, and one particular type of opioid was linked to this surge.

Overdose death rates linked to synthetic opioids – a class of drugs including the potent painkiller fentanyl – jumped by 45.2% between 2016 and 2017. Death rates from heroin and prescription opioids, by contrast, remained high but stable from 216 to 2017.

The report also found that synthetic opioid overdoses are expanding geographically. Previously, deaths due to these drugs primarily occurred east of the Mississippi River, a CDC media statement said. But the newest data show that eight states west of the Mississippi (Arizona, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, and Washington), have had significant increases in synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

Synthetic opioids are drugs created to relieve pain by mimicking naturally occurring opioids like morphine and codeine, according to the CDC. The category includes drugs made by pharmaceutical companies, like tramadol and fentanyl, as well as drugs made illegally.

Read more: 6 signs someone may have an opioid addiction, and how to help

Fentanyl, one well-known synthetic opioid, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It’s used legally to treat pain in medical settings, and it can be administered by injection, a skin patch, or lozenges.

But in the US, most recent cases of fentanyl-related overdoses, death, and harm are linked to illicitly manufactured fentanyl, or IMF, according to the CDC.

In fact, the new CDC report said that IMF was “likely” the driver behind the rising rate of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2017.

On the street, IMF can be found as powder or pills. It also may be mixed with heroin or disguised as another, less potent opioid painkiller like oxycodone. Fentanyl’s potency means it comes with a high risk of overdose, especially if the user doesn’t know that a powder or pill contains the drug, according to NIDA.


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Why fentanyl is deadlier than heroin, in a single photo

Earlier this month, a separate CDC report ranking the most commonly used drugs involved in overdoses found that fentanyl has surpassed oxycodone to become the deadliest drug in America.

“The drug overdose epidemic continues to evolve, with the involvement of many types of drugs including opioids, cocaine, and psychostimulants,” Dr. Debra Houry, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said in the CDC media statement. “This underscores the urgency for more timely and localised data to inform public health and public safety action.”

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