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Super Painkiller Zohydro Could Lead to More Overdose Deaths

A new super-potent narcotic painkiller called Zohydro is set to enter the marketplace and critics fear the country will see a spike in opioid addiction and overdose deaths as a result.

Zohydro, which was approved by the FDA last year in a controversial decision, is an extended release formula of pure hydrocodone. In spite of the warnings from experts that this drug is overly dangerous and should not be prescribed, the FDA gave it the go-ahead last fall.

The prescription painkillers called opioids, such as OxyContin, Percocet and Roxicodone, are derived from the opium poppy and not only reduce pain, they also produce a sense of euphoria. For this reason, the medications are susceptible to abuse and can lead to addiction. Opioids are important medications due to the relief they provide to people suffering from severe and chronic pain. On the other hand, because they have been prescribed so frequently and because most people misunderstand the risks associated with taking them, these medications are being abused in record numbers.

Painkillers are the most abused of any type of prescription, with over 5 million Americans misusing them. Abuse of these drugs often leads to a lifelong battle with addiction and causes thousands of overdose deaths every year. In the U.S., prescription drug abuse now cause more accidental deaths than the illegal drugs heroin and cocaine combined.

Zohydro: Pure Hydrocodone

There are many types of opioid painkillers and different formulations. Some are more addictive than others. Several of the painkillers are listed as Schedule II controlled substances because of the high potential for both abuse and addiction. One of these is hydrocodone in its pure form. Hydrocodone has been available in combination with other drugs, and, in combination, hydrocodone is less likely to be abused, less likely to cause addiction and less able to cause an accidental overdose.

Zohydro is pure hydrocodone. Each extended release tablet contains 25 to 50 milligrams of hydrocodone, which is five to 10 times more than the amount in Vicodin, which is a combination of  hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Because Zohydro is an extended release medication, patients with chronic pain will be able to take one tablet and experience relief for up to 12 hours. Those who wish to abuse hydrocodone will simply crush the tablet and get the entire dose at once. A dose of 50 milligrams could easily cause death, especially in those who are new to abusing opioids. Just one pill, uncrushed, could prove fatal for a child.

More than 40 experts expressed deep concern over the release of Zohydro and formalized their argument in a letter to the FDA. The medication was approved anyway, but what experts fear is a situation similar to the one that occurred when OxyContin came onto the market. OxyContin is an extended release tablet for another opioid called oxycodone. When abusers realized the pill could be crushed to get a large dose, a huge epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths occurred. The epidemic was largest in the Appalachian region, earning the drug the nickname “hillbilly heroin.”

OxyContin was eventually reformulated in such a way that abusers could not crush it to get the full dose of oxycodone. The makers of Zohydro claim that it will be another three years before they can develop and make available a crush-resistant form of the drug. Although the risks of putting this new medication on the marketplace seem very high, the FDA went forward with approval and decided not to wait for the crush-proof form.

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