More than 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses. Users develop tolerance for the drug over time, requiring higher doses to feel the same effects. A majority of deaths are unintentional, caused by respiratory depression. Users develop mental tolerance for the drug's rewarding effects faster than a tolerance for the effects on the respiratory system. To counteract the crisis, physicians have begun prescribing fewer opioids, which has pushed many users to the streets for drugs. Street opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, are currently responsible for a majority of overdose deaths. These street drugs are cheaper than prescription opioids and significantly more powerful — fentanyl is 50-100 times stronger than morphine.
The following graph shows how synthetic opioid overdoses have increased from 2000 to 2016, with especially steep increase in the past five years compared to overdoses from other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. According to the graph, synthetic opioids other than methadone increased to more than 20,000 overdose deaths in 2016; heroin deaths rose to more than 15,000; natural and semi-synthetic opioids increased to more than 14,000 deaths; cocaine rose to 10,619 deaths and methamphetamine rose to 7,663 deaths. Methadone deaths are the only one that decreased, with 3,314 reported in 2016.
Naloxone is the main drug used to treat opioid overdoses. It reverses the effects of opioids. Naloxone needs to be administered as fast as possible once an overdose occurs.