Addiction Recovery Blog

How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Opioid Epidemic

[fa icon="calendar"] Jan 20, 2022 / by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina

The opioid epidemic is becoming increasingly rampant in the United States and across the world. This past year, the drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high of approximately 100,000 in the US, and about 65% of these deaths were related to opioids. 

Unfortunately, the coronavirus and all the uncertainty that came with it, only made the opioid epidemic worse. With health departments spending so much time and money on COVID, the spotlight has shifted away from the opioid crisis. 

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs derived from, or designed to mimic, opium. Opiates are natural opioids, including morphine and codeine, which are found in the opium poppy.

Opioids such as fentanyl are called synthetic opioids because they are chemically made, while heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, made from morphine (a natural opioid) that has been chemically processed. 

The brain also naturally produces its own version of opioids called endogenous neurotransmitters, or endorphins, which are responsible for decreasing pain, lowering the respiratory rate, and even helping to prevent depression and anxiety. 


How Opioids Affect the Body

Because the brain produces natural opiate-like neurotransmitters, it also has opiate receptors which latch onto opioids when they enter the body. These receptors are located in the brain, spinal cord, and other locations in the body.

Opioids block the perception of pain, and can increase feelings of relaxation, well-being, and even euphoria. However, they can also cause side effects such as nausea, confusion, and drowsiness.

When a person is taking opioids for an extended period of time, they will start to build up a tolerance, and will need a larger dose in order to experience the same pleasant effects.

Medications containing opioids are often prescribed after serious surgeries to help manage short-term pain. When using opioids for pain management, the individual may become anxious when they are without their prescription drugs, because they are afraid of being in extreme pain once again. 

woman pouring prescription pills into hand


Extended use of opioids may cause your brain to stop creating its natural endorphins on its own, because it now depends on artificial endorphins. This can cause a person to have a compulsive urge to continue taking opioids even after they are no longer medically needed.

Opioids change the chemistry of the brain and lead to drug tolerance, which means that over time the dose needs to be increased to achieve the same effect.

Opioid addiction can occur even when appropriate doses are prescribed and the person takes the medication as directed. When a person becomes dependent on opioids, they will experience intense withdrawal symptoms when they go without them.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Opioid Epidemic

The increase in opioid-related overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020 was upwards of a 30% increase, from about 70,000 the previous year to 93,000 in 2020.

Social isolation can make anyone feel anxious and lonely, but for those trying to overcome an addiction, connection to others is essential for maintaining sobriety. 

Many individuals experienced increased stress due to the uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, and turned to opioid drugs to cope. “Someone trying to recover from a substance use disorder has a physiological hypersensitivity to stress due to the effects of the substance on their central nervous system,” explains John Kelly, PhD, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

The pandemic caused a change in drug supply chains, which means that people may have to go longer periods of time without using, and may be receiving drugs from new sources, which means they don’t know exactly what they are getting.

Taking opioids from new sources increases the risk of overdose, since it could be cut with powerful substances such as fentanyl, which the person may not be aware of.

distressed man with head in hands

People also reported using drugs alone more often, which can be dangerous since there is no one around to help get medical attention if it is needed.

Access to treatment centers and support groups was limited at the beginning of the pandemic, which did not help the situation. Addiction treatment services have had to pivot from providing in-person treatment, to providing telehealth. Although telehealth is a great option for many reasons, it does not provide the sense of community and connection that is needed while attending treatment.

10 Signs of an Opioid Addiction 

Here are a few signs of an opioid addiction to be aware of:

  1. Taking opioids even when not in pain
  2. “Losing” medications in order to get a new prescription
  3. Craving or constantly thinking about opioids
  4. Slow or shallow breathing rate
  5. Anxiety attacks
  6. Continued opioid use despite having recurring social or interpersonal problems
  7. Experiencing withdrawal
  8. Change in sleep patterns
  9. Extreme mood swings
  10. Easily irritated

Opioid Addiction Treatment

Opioid addiction is a severe chronic illness, and needs to be treated with the same urgency as any other chronic illness. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of an opioid addiction, we encourage you to seek professional help right away. 

There are a variety of methods that can be used to treat opioid addiction, such as psychological treatment, which includes cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, and twelve-step programs. 

There are also medical treatments that use certain types of opioids to treat addiction to other opioids. These substances can reduce withdrawal symptoms by targeting the same centers in the brain that opioids target, without producing a high. The goal with this type of treatment is to restore balance to the brain and enable it to heal.

doctor holding a patient's hands

If you rely upon prescriptions for a mental or physical medical issue, you should learn from a doctor if any of these medications could impact your recovery. 

At Aquila Recovery, we offer outpatient and intensive outpatient programs that treat opioid addiction. We recognize that every individual requires a different treatment plan, which is why we don't just walk you through the steps if you're not ready - you get a say in your treatment plan and addiction recovery.

If a detox or inpatient facility is what the individual needs, we can refer them to reputable facilities that can provide intensive care. If you have questions about opioid addiction or treatment, reach out to our professional counselors who can help you navigate this difficult situation. 

Topics: Addiction, For Family Members, Drugs, opioids

Russ Kallina

Written by Russ Kallina

Russ Kallina is Aquila Recovery of Virginia's Program Director of Operations.