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The opioid crisis in Virginia: what you need to know

By Ken Gibson on June 11, 2018

America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, and Virginia is no exception. The Old Dominion had 803 deaths from fentanyl and heroin overdoses, and 465 fatalities from prescription opioid overdoses in 2016 alone. These figures seem to suggest that heroin and fentanyl addiction is more widespread than prescription opioid addiction, but looks can be deceiving.

That same year in Virginia, 8,710 emergency room visits were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses – which is six times more than the 1,401 emergency room visits for heroin and fentanyl overdoses. So while heroin and fentanyl appear more lethal, prescription opioid addiction affects far more Virginians.

Closer to home, Gloucester County alone had SEVEN heroin/fentanyl overdoses in 2016, and TWO prescription opioid overdoses.

The higher death rate associated with heroin may be because heroin is a street drug that is often cut with other substances, while prescription opioids are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies and are less likely to be tampered with. (Fentanyl is just lethal on a whole other level.) But prescription opioids are no less deadly, and many people who started using them for legitimate purposes have ended up addicted.

What are the commonly abused prescription opioids?

When physicians write prescriptions, we trust that the medication they’ve prescribed will benefit our health. In general, this is true. The problem with prescription opioids is that they are useful in treating pain, but they are also highly addictive.

The following are names of the most commonly prescribed opioids. If you’ve been prescribed one of these, know that they are addictive, and use care when taking them:

  • Codeine (used in many cough medications, and in conjunction with acetaminophen in Tylenol-Codeine No.3, Tylenol-Codeine No.4, Vopac)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic, Subsys, Abstral, and Ionsys)
  • Hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin, Lorcet, Hycet, Zamicet, Vicodin HP, Xodol 10/300, Vicodin ES, Lorcet HD, Verdrocet, and more)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Dilaudid-5, Exalgo, Palladone)
  • Methadone (MethadoseDolophineMethadone DisketsMethadose Sugar-Free)
  • Morphine (AVINza, Kadian, Kadian ER, Morphabond, MSIR, Oramorph SR, Roxanol, Roxanol-T)
  • Oxycodone (Percodan, Endodan, Roxiprin, Percocet, Endocet, Roxicet, and OxyContin)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana, Opana ER)
  • Paregoric
  • Sufentanil (Sufenta)
  • Tramadol (Ultram, Zytram, others)

Symptoms of opioid addiction

If you or a family member has been using prescription opioids for an extended time, the following symptoms can be cause for alarm. If you notice these SYMPTOMS, speak with a doctor about weaning yourself or your family member from the medication:

  • Slurred speech
  • Constipation
  • Agitation/irritability
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slowed rate of breathing
  • Problems with coordination
  • Drowsiness/sleepiness
  • Poor judgment/decision-making
  • Abandoning responsibilities
  • Sleeping more or less than usual or normal
  • Alternating mood swings
  • Euphoria
  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation

Signs of an opioid overdose

If you know that someone is an opioid user, and they exhibit any of the following symptoms, contact emergency services immediately:

  • No pulse; or slow, erratic pulse
  • Not breathing; or slow or irregular breathing
  • Loss of consciousness; unresponsive, can’t awaken
  • Constricted (small) pupils
  • Vomiting

Are there alternatives to opioids?

Yes. Opioids are extremely effective for treating acute pain following an injury or surgery, but for long-term treatment of pain, consider non-opioid treatments.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are non-addictive and generally considered safe. Acetaminophen, an ingredient in medications like Tylenol, is also a non-addictive alternative to opioids. Corticosteriods (steroids) can decrease inflammation and are effective for both acute and chronic pain management. These are just a few examples. We strongly recommend that you speak to a medical professional about good alternatives to opioids for you and your loved ones.

Extensive research is also underway on new, non-medicinal methods of pain relief. Physical therapy, acupuncture, surgery, nerve block injections, radiofrequency ablation, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, spinal cord stimulation (SCS), and pain pumps (pressing a button that releases medication directly to the spinal cord) all show a great deal of potential as alternatives to opioids. Research is also advancing on using adult stem cells to stimulate the growth of new, healthy tissue, which could be used to replace the damaged tissue that is often the root of pain.

What should I do if I suspect opioid addiction in myself or a loved one?

If you are having issues with opioid addiction, or know someone who is, check out the following resources to learn more:

A local resource to help you is the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck Community Service Board. The board offers early intervention services, substance abuse counseling, prevention services, and youth and family services through the Gloucester Counseling Center and other satellite locations. For more information, call (800) 639-9668, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

What should I do if I suspect someone else is driving under the influence of opioids?

If your loved one takes prescription medication, and you think it may contain opioids, it’s important to keep that person from driving a 4,000-pound vehicle. Offer to drive, call that person an Uber or Lyft, or offer your place as a “crash pad” until the effects wear off. Prescription drugs cause drivers to act almost as if they’re driving under the influence of alcohol, and that can be deadly.

At GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys, we focus on preventing wrecks before they happen. When you’re driving those winding country roads (or a more major road like Highway 17), look out for drivers who:

  • Are going way below the speed limit
  • Tend to stay stopped too long at stop signs or red lights
  • Perform jerky acceleration maneuvers (speed up or slow down suddenly)
  • Wander from their lanes
  • Swing too wide for turns
  • Cut across traffic because they seemingly missed an exit/turn
  • Forget to use headlights when it’s dark

Here’s our advice if you see a driver who you suspect may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol:

  • Keep your distance—including braking distance, in case that vehicle stops suddenly.
  • Let the other vehicle pass you, if it’s behind your car.
  • Pull over when it’s safe and CALL 911 to report the vehicle. Do not follow that vehicle. Give the dispatcher clear directions to help locate the at-risk driver and a description of the car and license number, if possible.

We can all help keep everyone safer. If you have been injured in an accident caused by someone you believe was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, call our Gloucester office for a free case evaluation at (804) 413-6777.

Let’s work together to take Virginia back from this newest wave of drug danger.

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Prevention, empathy, and diligence are hallmarks of everything we do at GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys. Our community can see these ideals lived out in our work to prevent personal injuries from happening.

  • Safety Education
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