Opioid Overdoses

When prescribed and used properly, opioids are an important and commonly used component to help control and manage moderate to severe pain. They are used in hospitals and are sometimes prescribed by doctors. Common opioids include Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Morphine, Fentanyl, Buprenorphine and Methadone. There are also illegal opioids, such as Heroin. Opioids work by stimulating opioid receptors in the brain which reduce pain.  An opioid overdose specifically occurs when opioids overwhelm the receptors in the brain, causing the Central Nervous System to be suppressed, which often results in limited/no breathing. (See What is an Opioid Overdose for more information).

The Crisis

In 2015, Utah County lost 179 people to opioid overdoses. That is equivalent to 4 school buses full of people (6). Between 2013-2015, Utah ranked 7th in the U.S. for drug poisoning deaths, which have outpaced deaths due to firearms, falls, and motor vehicle crashes (1, 2). There are several factors that contribute to Utah County’s high rates of prescription drug misuse:  High availability of drugs, low perception of harm, mistrust in physicians and healthcare, desire to have pain pills in case of an emergency, desire to help family and friends in need of pain pills, limited disposal methods, and the number of pharmacy outlets per capita all contribute to high prescription drug misuse rates.

Most Utahns who die from a drug-related death suffer from chronic pain and take prescribed medications. In 2014, 32% of Utah adults aged 18 years and older had been prescribed an opioid pain medication in the last 12 months (5). The increased amount of prescriptions being prescribed has been an ongoing concern. Unfortunately, these medications carry a high rate of dependency along with the potential for misuse. 74% of Utahns with an opioid addiction get them from a friend or family member (7). According to data from collected by the Utah Department of Health Violent Death Reporting System, more people are dying by prescription opioid overdose than heroin overdose in Utah (See Table 2).

Prescription opioid-related deaths separated by male and female in Utah from 2014-2016. More women (ages 35-65) than men are dying by prescription opioid overdose in Utah
Opioid deaths in Utah from 2000-2016, separated by drug type. More people are dying by prescription opioid overdose than heroin overdose in Utah.

How is Utah fighting this crisis?

Treatment Programs: There have been many prevention and treatment programs created to aid some of these concerns (8).
Naloxone Training: Utah County Health Department created an Opioid Overdose Program which trains individuals/groups in the community on how to recognize signs of an overdose and administer Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug (See What is Naloxone? for more information).
Drug Disposal: There are drug disposal boxes that can be found in almost every city in Utah County. Individuals are encouraged to throw out old or unused prescription medications.
Community Education: Use Only As Directed is a campaign promoted in the State of Utah that encourages individuals to speak to their physicians about opioid medication, opt out of using medications when able, and throw out leftovers.
Decrease Opioid Medication Usage: Hospitals have been encouraging and training their physicians to prescribe fewer opioid medications. For example, Intermountain Healthcare is one of the biggest medical providers in Utah County with three hospitals (American Fork Hospital, Orem Community Hospital, and Utah Valley Hospital), and a wide variety of clinics, offices, and InstaCares. In 2018, Intermountain Healthcare pledged to reduce the average number of opioid tablets they prescribed per acute pain prescription.
Policy Work: Utah State Legislature has developed policies to confront the opioid crisis and can be reviewed here.

How You Can Help


  1. Utah Death Certificate Database, Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Utah Department of Health: 1999- 2014 data queried via Utah’s Indicator-Based Information System for Public Health (IBIS-PH) [cited 2016 January].
  2. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013-2015). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). [cited 2017 January].
  3. Utah Violent Death Reporting System.
  4. Utah Department of Health Violence and Injury Prevention Program Prescription Medication Program Database.
  5. Utah Department of Health Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
  6. National Center on Health Statistics, CDC Wonder, 2015
  7. Use Only As Directed
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  9. Violence and Injury Prevention Program

Comments or Questions?