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The Opioid Crisis

One in 15 opioid overdose survivors die within a year of recovery, study finds

One in 15 people who experience an opioid overdose will die within a year - but many are killed by other health problems, not drugs, new research reveals

New research suggests that one in 15 people who suffer a nonfatal opioid overdose will die within a year afterward.

Even after surviving an opioid overdose, these people are most likely to die from illnesses related to substance use disorders, circulatory problems, and cancer.

The opioid crisis kills 175 Americans every day — and both the death toll and the total number of nonfatal overdoses have been rising every year for the past decade.

But a new analysis from Columbia University highlights the fact that it often doesn’t take long for people with opioid addiction to survive an overdose.

One in 15 people who experience an opioid overdose will die within a year - but many are killed by other health problems, not drugs, new research reveals

One in 15 people who experience an opioid overdose will die within a year – but many are killed by other health problems, not drugs, new research reveals

In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses.

But between July 2016 and September 2017, an additional 142,557 people survived an overdose.

The 64,000 number has been in all the headlines and public health initiatives, but the much larger group of people who have non-fatal overdoses is more often overlooked.

Life after an overdose for many of these patients is not like life after surviving other medical emergencies.

Opioids are highly addictive drugs that the body becomes dependent on, meaning many overdose patients leave the hospital and return to drug use.

Between 2001 and 2007, 76,325 people went to the emergency room for opioid overdoses.

Of these, 5,194 died within a year.

About a quarter of these deaths were due to drug use itself, including opioid or other substance overdoses and withdrawal complications.

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But the majority – 75 percent – died of other causes.

After drug-related illnesses, the most common causes of death were circulatory and heart problems and cancer.

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“I think understanding this pattern changes how we look at this population and allows us to understand that they are medically quite fragile,” says lead study author Dr Mark Olfson.

Rates of HIV- and hepatitis-related deaths were also unsurprisingly high, particularly among injection drug users. But many of the deaths from other diseases have claimed the lives of a group that receives less media attention.

As the year passed after their overdose, more and more survivors died

As the year passed after their overdose, more and more survivors died

“Some people have opioid overdoses because they started on prescription opioids to manage serious underlying chronic conditions,” says Dr. Olfson.

For example: “Advanced cancer can often have things like bone metastases, which are very painful conditions. They often need help with pain management, so they are very vulnerable not only to overdose on opioids, but also to die from cancer,” he explains.

There is also a wider crossover between opioid injection users and cancer patients because smoking, a primary cancer risk, is so common among these drug users.

This pattern only further underscores the often overlooked fact that drugs are often not the only health problem facing drug addicts.

Health professionals primarily try to encourage people to enter rehabilitation and especially medically assisted therapies (MAT) for addiction after their overdose.

It’s a good step, but it doesn’t solve all the problems at hand for these patients, says Dr. Olfson.

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And it’s not a new problem.

“Historically, there has been a separation between facilities that treat people with alcohol or drug problems and facilities that treat general health problems and general mental health problems,” says Dr. Olfson.

“We have problems coordinating that care because of this fragmentation of services, but we need to coordinate not just their addiction services, but general medical and mental health services.”

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