The opioid crisis the U.S. has tormented us for at least two decades. However, in the past recent years, it has become a public health emergency now more than ever. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose robbing the lives of over 400,000 Americans. On top of the death toll, at least 2 million people have developed an addiction to opioids.

Opioids, which are also referred to as narcotics, are a class of drug used to treat patients with persistent or severe chronic pain. Those suffering from cancer-related pain and those who are recovering from surgery can be prescribed opioids. The group of legal drugs that are available with a prescription that fall within the opioids include hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, morphine, among others. The problem with opioids is that they can become addictive quickly even when used solely on a prescription.

The opioid crisis began back in 1991. Back then, society started seeing an increase in opioid-prescriptions. This was mainly because pharmaceutical companies gave assurance to doctors that there was little to no-risk of addiction associated with the use of this type of drug. However, a rise in deaths linked directly to opioids soon showed otherwise. Also during this time, the use of opioids started being promoted on non-cancer patients, even when there was no data proving its benefits.

By 2010, as the amount of opioid-prescriptions that were issued decreased, people started turning to heroin, which is a cheap illegal opioid that is widely available. A few years later, those who had already developed an addiction started using a form of a synthetic opioid called fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Even though there are legal variations of synthetic opioids, those who have become addicted seek the illegal ones. Nowadays, synthetic opioids have become the most common drug in the U.S. causing people to overdose. By the end of 2017, over 47,000 Americans had died of an opioid overdose.

The crisis grows in seriousness when the ones suffering from the consequences of this drug abuse are not only those who directly use it. Secondary exposures to the drug are affecting nurses who handle overdose patients, making their job even more difficult. Across the U.S., there have been several cases of nurses who pass out shortly after being in contact with patients who’ve used fentanyl. The fact that opioids are constantly being altered to have stronger effects in smaller quantities puts those who have never been in contact with drugs in great danger as a small amount can become fatal. It is not only nurses who are at risk; its anyone who is in contact with those who suffer from addiction ranging from law enforcement officers to friends and family of the victims.

The severity of the symptoms causes by secondary opioid exposure will depend on the amount, concentration and route of administration of the drug. Some of the symptoms victims can present include an altered state of consciousness, trouble breathing, altered vital signs, vomiting, dizziness, among others.

As of today, education might be the strongest resource to fight this on-going battle. Knowing the consequences of any kind of drug usage is important to try to discourage people to from using these in the first place. As for nurses, it is a shame that those who dedicate themselves to take care of others are at risk of suffering the consequences too. Extra safety steps should be taken to try to minimize the risk of secondary opioid exposure as much as possible.