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What are Opioids?

Opioids (otherwise known as narcotics) are a class of pain-relieving drugs. Opioids act primarily in the brain to reduce signals of pain. Prescription opioids (e.g. morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone) are prescribed by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain. While prescription opioids can be used safely, they carry the risk of life-threatening overdose and are highly addictive if misused or abused. Illicit opioids include drugs like heroin, illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fake pills. Illicit opioids are highly addictive, and use of illicit opioids poses many health risks, including death. 

Why is the Rise of Opioid Overdose Trending?

For over 20 years, the number of opioid-involved overdoses has continued to rise in the United States. In what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes as the first wave of the opioid epidemic, the initial rise of opioid overdose deaths stemmed from an increases in prescribed opioids beginning in 1999. Opioid-involved overdose deaths continued to rise throughout the early 2000s, leading to the second wave of the opioid epidemic in 2010. The second wave was characterized by an increase in opioid deaths involving heroin. Currently, the United States is in the third wave, which began in 2013. During the third wave, there has been a significant increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which can be found in illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and fake pills. In 1999 when the first wave started, opioid overdose death rates were 2.9 per 100,000 people. In 2020 the number increased to 21.4 deaths per 100,000 people, marking a clear trend in rising cases of opioid overdose deaths and establishing the significance of addressing the trend.

According to the CDC, opioids caused nearly 17,000 deaths in 2021, the equivalent to 45 deaths per day, while deaths involving synthetic opioids accounted for nearly 71,000 drug overdoses. Additionally, the CDC states 9.7 million Americans reported misusing prescription opioids, while 1.4 million Americans had a prescription opioid use disorder in 2019.

Cases reported to Poison Centers also follow similar trends to what has been reported in CDC data.

As of May 31, 2024, Poison Centers have managed 19,463 opioid substances exposure cases.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of an Opioid Overdose?

Know the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose:

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint” pupils
  • Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Limp body and pale, blue, or cold skin

Treatment and First Aid

If you suspect someone is experiencing a life-threatening opioid overdose:

  • Call 911 immediately if the person has stopped breathing or is unable to respond
  • Treat the person with naloxone to reverse opioid overdose if it is available
  • Lay the person on their side to prevent choking and wait for emergency help to arrive.

If someone is breathing and responsive:

  • Call Poison Help 1-800-222-1222 for specific recommendations.

    Take Action

    For questions about opioids and opioid overdoses call Poison Help at 1-800-222-1222. From prescription related questions, to concerns about signs and symptoms of potential overdose, Poison Help staff are ready and available, 24/7/365, free of cost, for emergencies and non-emergencies.

    For the Media

    Please cite this data as “National Poison Data System, America's Poison Centers.” Any and all print, digital, social, or visual media using this data must include the: “You can reach your local Poison Center by calling the Poison Help line: 1-800-222-1222. To save the number in your mobile phone, text POISON to 301-597-7137.” Email or call 703-894-1863 for more information, questions, or to submit a data request.


    Opioid exposure and overdose can be prevented by:

    • Take medicine as prescribed by your practitioner

    • Do not take more medication or take it more often than instructed

    • Never mix pain medicines with alcohol, sleeping pills, or illicit substances

    • Never take anyone else’s medication

    • Prevent children and pets from accidental ingestion by storing your medication out of reach

    • Dispose of unused medication safely, for more information on the safe disposal of unused medications, visit FDA's disposal of unused medicines or DEA's drug disposal webpages.


    Important Notes About Poison Center Data

    America's Poison Centers maintains the National Poison Data System (NPDS), the national database of information logged by the country’s Regional Poison Centers serving all 50 United States, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and territories. Case records in this database are from self-reported calls: they reflect only information provided when the public or healthcare professionals report an actual or potential exposure to a substance, request information, or request educational materials. As such:
    • America's Poison Centers is not able to completely verify the accuracy of every report made to member centers.
    • Additional exposures may go unreported to Poison Centers and data referenced from the association should not be construed to represent the complete incidence of national exposures to any substance(s).
    • Poison Center call volume about any given substance is influenced by the public’s awareness of the hazard or even the Poison Help line itself, which are heavily influenced by both social and traditional media coverage.
    • Poison data are considered preliminary and are subject to change until the dataset for a given year has been locked.
    • America's Poison Centers is continuously working to update the NPDS substance coding taxonomy to better serve the needs of America's Poison Centers' members and surveillance partners. As a result, substances may be reclassified within NPDS’ coding hierarchy, and case counts may change. This is particularly true for novel or emerging substances.

    The term “exposure” means someone has had contact with the substance in some way; for example, ingested, inhaled, or absorbed a substance by the skin or eyes, etc. Exposures do not necessarily represent poisonings or overdoses.

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