Wednesday, April 28, 2021 (Kaiser News) — Covid survivors are at risk from a possible second pandemic, this time of opioid addiction, given the high rate of painkillers being prescribed to these patients, health experts say.
A new study in Nature found alarmingly high rates of opioid use among covid survivors with lingering symptoms at Veterans Health Administration facilities. About 10% of covid survivors develop “long covid,” struggling with often disabling health problems even six months or longer after a diagnosis.
For every 1,000 long-covid patients, known as “long haulers,” who were treated at a Veterans Affairs facility, doctors wrote nine more prescriptions for opioids than they otherwise would have, along with 22 additional prescriptions for benzodiazepines, which include Xanax and other addictive pills used to treat anxiety.
Although previous studies have found many covid survivors experience persistent health problems, the new article is the first to show they’re using more addictive medications, said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the paper’s lead author.
He’s concerned that even an apparently small increase in the inappropriate use of addictive pain pills will lead to a resurgence of the prescription opioid crisis, given the large number of covid survivors. More than 3 million of the 31 million Americans infected with covid develop long-term symptoms, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, depression, anxiety and memory problems known as “brain fog.”
The new study also found many patients have significant muscle and bone pain.
The frequent use of opioids was surprising, given concerns about their potential for addiction, said Al-Aly, chief of research and education service at the VA St. Louis Health Care System.
“Physicians now are supposed to shy away from prescribing opioids,” said Al-Aly, who studied more than 73,000 patients in the VA system. When Al-Aly saw the number of opioids prescriptions, he said, he thought to himself, “Is this really happening all over again?”
Doctors need to act now, before “it’s too late to do something,” Al-Aly said. “We must act now and ensure that people are getting the care they need. We do not want this to balloon into a suicide crisis or another opioid epidemic.”