The COVID-19 pandemic has created many adverse effects, even outside the virus itself. Since the start of the pandemic, life has been upended for nearly everyone, including people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
The effects of the pandemic increase the risk of relapse for opioids and other drugs. We’re just starting to find out some of the relationships between COVID-19 and drug addiction, and it’s startling.
COVID-19 and Drug Addiction
Researchers observe increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the U.S. since COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in 2020. There are distinct challenges for people who have substance use disorders and are recovering.
Some of the reasons the pandemic has affected people with addiction or led to an increased likelihood of relapse on opioids and other substances include:
- People have been dealing with anxiety about COVID itself for several years. There are worries about getting sick yourself. People also worry about their loved ones and their COVID-19 risk. With hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone, many people know someone who has become seriously ill or died because of the virus. These are things that create negative mental health effects. When someone is dealing with anxiety, fear, or depression, they may turn to coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. These are also feelings that could trigger a relapse if someone struggles with positive coping mechanisms.
- The pandemic led to shutdowns and disruptions in normal life and routines, along with fears about the virus itself. When someone uses substances or is in recovery, something disruptive to their routine can lead to a drug craving, drug-seeking behavior, increased usage, or relapse.
- Since there were shutdowns, many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Job loss and economic worries and contributors to alcohol and drug relapse. Stress-induced relapse is an enormous problem for so many right now.
- Social distancing required that people not see their friends, family, and perhaps their recovery support network. For a period of time, many support and recovery groups weren’t meeting in person.
- Health care wasn’t as accessible or available as it usually is, including mental health care. Telehealth options became more common during the pandemic, but they weren’t necessarily readily available at the beginning of COVID in the U.S.
- An opioid use disorder or another addiction may raise the risk of severe illness with the virus that causes COVID-19. The use of opioids can slow breathing on its own. If you were sick and had respiratory symptoms, these could get worse with opioids. Like many other medical conditions, a substance use disorder makes you high risk.
Before the pandemic, the treatment infrastructure was strained and faced limitations. Now, even more, comprehensive services are needed.
Increases in Substance Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic
According to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, data shows significant increases in many types of drug use in the United States and among people with substance use disorders.
Researchers point to increases in the number of positive urine drug screenings ordered by legal systems and health care providers as evidence. In these reports, doctors are finding positive screens for cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine from past years.
Studies show that people in the U.S. are increasing their use of alcohol and cannabis. This is especially true among people with depression and clinical anxiety and people dealing with COVID-19 stress.
Record-Breaking Overdose Deaths in 2020
There was progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic before the pandemic. Overdose deaths were trending down for the first time in many years. Then, the pandemic happened, and all that progress seemingly vanished.
According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, there were an estimated 100,306 overdose deaths in the U.S. during 12 months, ending in April 2021. The increase was 28.5%, from the 78,056 deaths during the same period the previous year.
The CDC’s data shows opioid overdose deaths increased to 75,673 in those 12 months. Fentanyl deaths went up, as did deaths from psychostimulants like methamphetamine. Cocaine deaths increased, and deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids like pain medications rose.
Deaths due to overdose went above a million for the first time since the CDC started collecting data more than two years ago. A recent study released by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC, found 932,364 people died in the U.S. from a fatal overdose from 1999 through 2020. That doesn’t include the more than 100,000 deaths in 2021.
These deaths have gone up fastest among young and middle-aged adults.
The age group in particular with the highest rates is adults 35-44, and in that age bracket, drug overdose deaths went up 33% from 2019 to 2020. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 saw the largest year-to-year increase in fatal overdoses. Deaths in this age group were up 49% in 2020.
Alcohol Use During the Pandemic
It’s not just drug relapse rates and the links between covid-19 and drug addiction that worry addiction professionals. Alcohol use soared during this time as well, among other addictive behaviors.
- Researchers estimate a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic will lead to 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver diseases.
- They estimate it will contribute to 18,700 cases of liver failure and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040.
- Excessive drinking among adults in the U.S. went up by 21% during the pandemic.
- When an emergency was declared in the U.S., alcohol sales went up 54% during the initial week.
- Excessive drinking stems from boredom and social isolation to using it as a coping mechanism.
- Addiction specialists warn that a drinking problem doesn’t just mean excessively consuming alcohol. Other signs of problematic drinking can include having alcohol when you didn’t otherwise plan to, or in situations where you wouldn’t normally drink.
Warning signs also include alcohol impacting your work performance, your ability to take care of your household or family, or adverse effects on your relationships.
What Can Be Done?
For someone who experiences a relapse on opioids or other substances, the most important thing to do is get help right away. The longer you wait after a relapse, the more likely complications and negative outcomes will occur.
Most treatment centers and mental health facilities reopened, and support groups are meeting again, so there are opportunities to receive help.
There are also telehealth platforms where people can get help for addiction or relapse.
If you experience a relapse, you may need to go through treatment again to regain your footing on your recovery path.
If you’re experiencing new symptoms of a substance use disorder, you aren’t alone. There are so many factors contributing to substance abuse among people who maybe didn’t have problematic use habits before the pandemic.