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Many Drug Abusers do not know how to React During Overdose

Update Date: Oct 03, 2014 10:09 AM EDT

Even though prescription drug abusers risk overdosing, many of them do not know how to react if they experience one, a new study reported. According to the researchers, there are different ways to deal with an overdose that could potentially save their lives. However, many of these abusers are unaware of these options.

"What we found is that when it comes to how to handle an overdose, prescription opioid users who weren't using drugs for official medical reasons were less savvy than, say, more traditional heroin-using populations," said study author David Frank, a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City according to WebMD. "In fact, they tend to have a pretty severe lack of knowledge and a lot of confusion about it, despite the fact that most have experienced overdoses within their drug-using network."

For this study, the researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 46 prescription drug abusers between the ages of 18 and 32. All of the participants were from New York City where the rate of overdoses tied to opioids has tripled from 2000 to 2011. The majority of the sample, at around 75 percent, was white. 50 percent of them had some degree of college education and nine participants were college graduates.

Overall, almost all of the participants knew of someone who went through a fatal or nonfatal overdose, or had gone through one themselves. However, despite the awareness of these overdoses, the majority of them did not know of any preventive measures or response options. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse the signs of an overdose and is distributed free of cost within New York at many needle-exchange or harm reduction programs that also offer training on how to use it.

"Solutions are tough," Frank acknowledged. "I would say that it's important to expand access to naloxone and information about naloxone. And to do that by focusing more on getting prescription drug users to access harm reduction programs more frequently, because to a certain extent these programs may have been a little behind the curve on reaching out to this subculture."

The researchers added that many prescription drug abusers might not know how to respond to an overdose because they do not think that they are at-risk. Opioid abusers tend to be white, younger and from a higher socioeconomic background. They do not group themselves with other abusers and might not think that prescription drugs can cause overdoses just as likely as heroin could.

"Stigma lies at the heart of the problems highlighted in this article," said Jack Stein, director of the office of science policy and communications at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "Societal stigma against heroin abuse and associated ignorance about heroin addiction has prevented those who become addicted to prescription opioids from recognizing their abuse as similar to, and equally dangerous as, heroin abuse."

The study was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

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