The good news is overdose deaths from opioids in the United States have dropped slightly in 25 states, but here's the bad news: Deaths from fentanyl are still increasing, federal health officials reported Thursday.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths from fentanyl increased, especially when mixed with other opioids, benzodiazepines, cocaine or methamphetamine.
"Over the past few years, fentanyl has been the primary driver of opioid overdose deaths, and the latest CDC data confirms this trend has continued," said Emily Feinstein, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Center on Addiction, in New York City.
Deaths from cocaine and methamphetamine have also been rising in recent years, partly due to fentanyl, but also because drug-use patterns are shifting from opioids to stimulants, she said.
The data collected from July to December 2017 and from January to June 2018 showed that the increase in fentanyl-related deaths nearly wiped out the decline in deaths from opioid overdoses, the CDC reported.
Specifically in 25 states (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin), opioid overdose deaths dropped 5% overall, but fentanyl-related deaths increased 11%.
In the overdose deaths involving fentanyl, 63% also involved benzodiazepines like Xanax, cocaine or methamphetamine, the researchers found.
Benzodiazepines were present in 33% of opioid deaths, cocaine was seen in 34% and methamphetamine in 12%, the findings showed.
"Fentanyl is an extremely potent drug when used alone, and increases the risk of overdose when mixed with other drugs," Feinstein said.
Drug dealers mix illicit fentanyl with heroin and other drugs because it is cheap and makes their product stronger, she noted.
From 2013 to 2017, the number of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States increased 90%, from just over 25,000 to 47,600, the CDC team reported.
The increase was primarily driven by deaths involving illegal fentanyl or reformulations of fentanyl, the study authors said.
"Fentanyl has infiltrated the drug supply beyond heroin and other opioids -- it's been found in cocaine, methamphetamine, fake or 'pressed' Xanax pills, and has even been found in marijuana," Feinstein said.
There is some good news here, she said. A slight dip in opioid overdose deaths generally, and from prescription opioids specifically, has happened. Also, the rate of increase in fentanyl overdoses has slowed.
"However, we are still experiencing an unprecedented overdose crisis, and the number of deaths is astonishing," Feinstein said.
The only way to turn the tide is to address addiction as a whole, to catch it early and offer quality, affordable care to everyone who needs it, she said.
"Now that illicit fentanyl is widely available and being mixed into the drug supply, the stakes are even higher," Feinstein added.
The report was published Aug. 30 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more on the opioid crisis, head to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.