Bottle With Pills

Understanding the Risks of Opioids

For the past six months, the nation’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic – but the opioid epidemic rages on. If you’ve heard the term before but aren’t sure what it means, it refers to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have become addicted, overdosed, or died from prescription pain medications.

The effects aren’t just physical: opioid addiction can cost people their jobs and their reputations. It can isolate people from their family and friends. Opioid addiction can lead even the most honorable people into a life of ill judgment, bad decisions, and even crime. Read on to learn more about the benefits, dangers, and what AltaMed is doing to protect patients.

What Are Opioids?

Underlining Word Opioids in a Book

Opioids are a general class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant or created in a lab to produce the same effects. The main effect of opioids is pain relief, but many opioids also leave the user feeling incredibly relaxed, and even high.

Opioids are extremely effective for treating certain types of pain, especially pain that is acute, or short-term in nature.

You might be prescribed opioids if you:

  • Just had surgery
  • Broke a bone
  • Experience kidney stones
  • Have cancer
  • Or other cases in which there may be severe pain that is not expected to last more than a few weeks or even a couple of months.

Commonly prescribed opioids include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Norco)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Endocet)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)
  • Morphine (MS Contin, Kadian, Oramorph SR)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic)
  • Codeine (Tylenol with Codeine)

The street drug, heroin, is an opioid, though it is never used as a medicine in the United States.

What to Do If Your Doctor Prescribes You Opioids

Woman Choosing Pills

If you are a patient who has been prescribed opioids, always ask if there is another medication or therapy available to you. For example, if you have been prescribed opioids for back pain, ask if physical therapy, or a drug like aspirin or ibuprofen is a better choice. Pain patients may also benefit from alternative/complementary treatments such as trigger point injections, massage, and even behavioral therapy. If your doctor doesn’t want to discuss alternatives, get a second opinion.

However, if you and your doctor thoughtfully decide an opioid prescription is the most appropriate treatment, these steps can help make sure you are using them properly and not putting yourself, or anyone else, at risk.

  • Take your medication exactly as prescribed.
  • Educate yourself about the health risks, and signs of abuse and overdose.
  • Never lend your medication to anyone else.
  • Keep your medicine somewhere safe and out of reach of children.
  • Tell all of your doctors about the medications you’re taking.
  • If you have extra, contact your pharmacy to learn about safe disposal.
  • When it’s time to stop taking your prescription, talk to your health care team about making a plan to get off of opioids.

Why You Must Know the Dangers

Pills and Tablets

One of the things that makes opioids so addictive is how they affect your brain: they help produce endorphins, which block pain and make you feel good. Over time, your brain may stop producing its own endorphins, and so the only way to feel good is to take more drugs. And over time, opioids also become less effective at making the pain go away, so you’ll need more to get the same effects. This is called dependence.

Misuse is taking opioids in any way other than how a doctor prescribes. For example, taking a higher dosage, or, instead of taking them as pills, crushing and snorting them, or taking prescriptions that aren’t yours. Because opioids are so powerful, any one of these things can lead to an overdose or even death.

Addiction is compulsive drug use, no matter what the consequences are. Dependence and addiction often go hand-in-hand, and addiction can often lead to misuse, though not everyone who misuses a drug is an addict.

An overdose occurs when someone takes too much of a drug. Opioids affect the part of the brain that controls breathing, and during an overdose, breathing can slow down or stop, leading to seizures, respiratory failure, and even death.

Any one of these dangers can happen in a short period, even with a low dosage. This is why it’s critical for anyone with a prescription to work closely with their health care team.

The Benefits of Getting Your Care Under One Roof

Medicine Rack

AltaMed physicians and pharmacists take an active role in helping to prevent opioid misuse and addiction. When you get care in the AltaMed network, electronic health records let our physicians share information, so you’re never prescribed more than you need. Your AltaMed pharmacist will ensure your medications don’t interact with each other, and that you know exactly what you’re taking.

AltaMed also uses COMBAT, a comprehensive program that takes a proactive approach to identifying and monitoring potentially high-risk patients. The program’s goal is to provide physicians with tools to prevent misuse and overdose, and ensure the patient is still getting effective treatment for their pain.

If you are being treated for pain, the best way to protect yourself is to work closely with your doctor. Have an honest discussion about your concerns. We’re here for you to get the help you need, and support your mind and body on your journey to grow healthy.

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Fancy alcoholic drinks banner

Alcohol and Your Health

For many people, having a refreshing beer, a calming glass of wine, or a tasty cocktail is a nice way to end the day, socialize on a night out, or have fun on the weekends. Some savor the taste; others enjoy the “buzz” and the feeling they get after a couple of drinks.

When it comes to drinking alcohol and our health, there are so many mixed messages out there. Some studies say that having a little wine every day is good for your heart, but there have also been many reports about a dangerous increase in binge drinking. And you may be wondering, “Is it ever OK to drink?”

AltaMed is here to give you the facts so you can make a healthy decision that’s right for you.

How Much Drinking is Too Much?

Girls Drinking Alcohol

Many people drink not for the taste, but because of how drinking makes them feel (or prevents them from feeling). Over time, those who drink for the effects may find themselves needing more drinks, more often, to achieve that feeling. And drinking to excess, or to the point where it affects your health, your relationships, or your professional life, is alcohol use disorder, more commonly known as alcoholism.

Unfortunately, there’s no one right answer to the question of, “How many drinks separates a casual drinker from someone with a problem?” Some people can drink regularly without it affecting their life and heath, and they can simply quit drinking if they want. Others may develop physical and emotional dependence on alcohol after a very short period of time.

Signs of alcoholism include:

  • Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Spending an excessive amount of time finding alcohol, drinking, then recovering
  • Feeling overwhelming urges to drink
  • Not feeling able to face parts of your life without a drink first
  • Knowing that alcohol is causing problems with your life, but continuing to drink anyway
  • Drinking in unsafe situations – for example, when driving or swimming

Alcoholism is a Serious Disease That Can Be Fatal

Alcoholic man with drink

Make no mistake: alcoholism is a disease, the same way diabetes or MS are both diseases. It’s not just a character flaw, a lack of willpower, or because you’re a bad person. The astronaut Buzz Aldrin and beloved actor Robin Williams both had drinking problems, and no one would accuse either of them of being weak or evil. In fact, many alcoholics desperately want to quit drinking, but they can’t. It is a condition that affects both the body and the brain.

If left untreated, alcoholism can have serious health consequences, including:

  • Diseases of the liver
  • Heart problems
  • Diabetes complications
  • Erectile dysfunction in men; menstruation issues in women Issues with your brain and nervous system that may result in numbness in your hands and feet, dementia, or short-term memory loss
  • Increased risk of many cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, colon and breast cancers – even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer
  • Drastically increased risks of birth defects and miscarriage in pregnant women
  • Increased risk of dying or being seriously injured in car accidents, homicide, suicide, and drowning

Who’s at Highest Risk?

Glass With Alcoholic Beverage

Alcoholism has a genetic component and it runs in families, but there isn’t a simple pattern to determine who will most likely become an alcoholic. According to the latest surveys from the CDC and research on the link between alcoholism and genetics:

  • Children of alcoholics are two to four times more likely to develop a drinking problem – but fewer than half go on to become alcoholics themselves.
  • While Mexican Americans are less likely to drink than whites, when they do, they’re more likely to drink even more. Mexican Americans are more likely to binge drink.
  • Similarly, African Americans are less likely to drink at all but are slightly more likely than whites to be binge drinkers.
  • Men, in general, are more likely to drink and drink to excess than women are.

Help is Available, and We’re Here for You

Woman Providing Help

Again, alcoholism is not a moral defect – it’s a serious health problem that requires a serious solution. If you have questions about alcohol use or need referrals to treatment programs, contact AltaMed’s Behavioral Health Services. Even if you’ve tried before to quit drinking, the right care, support, and treatment can make all the difference.

Teenager vaping

Vaping is Everywhere and the Risks are Real

October 20 kicks off Respiratory Care Week, and to recognize the importance of strong, healthy lungs, we’d like to shed some light on what’s becoming a huge threat to the health of teens and adults alike. In recent years, e-cigarettes, also known as vapes or vape pens, have grown more popular. Vapes were originally designed and marketed as a nicotine-delivery tool to help adult cigarette smokers break the habit, but with sleek, high-tech looking packaging and flavors like cotton candy, bubblegum, and strawberry cheesecake, kids as young as 12 have been seeking them out – and getting hooked.

Ask almost any middle-school or high-school kid: vapes are all too common on campus, filling up bathrooms with flavored smoke. Kids believe vapes are only flavor and water, and many adults are unconcerned, thinking, “At least it’s safer than smoking.” Indeed, many of the products are advertised as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but they’re anything but harmless.

Vapes Can Cause Serious or Fatal Lung Disease

Radiography of Lung Cancer

“The lungs are designed to use air: not smoke or chemicals,” says Dr. Ilan Shapiro, an AltaMed pediatrician. This is the reason why we’ve recently been seeing news stories about serious lung conditions that were linked to vaping. Just in the past few months, mysterious vape-induced lung diseases killed six and more than 300 individuals got sick, with many of those people ending up in the hospital.

Even with the nation’s top doctors, scientists, and research centers working together to find an answer, the unfortunate truth is that no one is 100% sure of what is causing the illness.

Another reason why vaping is dangerous is that the product has not been around that long. There hasn’t been enough time to do meaningful, long-term research on its effects, and the products themselves still are not strongly regulated. In fact, consumers can’t even be certain that vape products are labeled correctly. For example, one study found that even vape juice pods that were supposed to be nicotine-free contained some amount of nicotine.

Vaping Has Been Called a Youth Epidemic

Vaping is bad for everyone, but vaping’s effects hit kids and teens harder, for several reasons.

Because children’s brains are still developing, early exposure to potent doses of nicotine can rewire their brains, leaving them even more likely to become addicted and engage in other risky substances. Research indicates that kids who vape are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes (compared to kids who don’t vape) – and many of those kids start smoking within six months of their first hit off a vape pen.

In addition to harming the lungs and the brain, vaping is just as bad for the heart and cardiovascular systems as regular cigarettes are.

If You’re a Parent, Here’s How to Keep Your Kids Safe

Mom Talking to Her Teenager Daughter

Even if all of your child’s friends are vaping, don’t underestimate the power you have to make a difference. Here’s what you can do to help make sure your teens don’t start vaping:

  • Set a good example. Don’t use tobacco products yourself. If you do, get help to quit.
  • Have an open and honest conversation. Don’t be judgmental: listen and encourage your child to tell you what they’re going through.
  • Make these conversations a habit. Your child may be repeatedly be faced with the temptation to vape, so try to have these conversations often.
  • Arm yourself with the facts. As a rule, scare tactics won’t dissuade your child. Educate yourself with scientific evidence and stories from trusted news sources.

Get Help to Break the Smoking or Vaping Habit

Woman Holding a Vaper and a Cellphone

“Today we are extremely worried that young healthy adults are dying, related to their use of vaping products, and we need to avoid these chemicals and products to safeguard our community,” said Dr. Shapiro.

If you or a loved one needs help to quit tobacco use or vaping, call the California Smokers’ Helpline at 1-800-NO BUTTS or visit Available in multiple languages, the program offers free counseling and support services.

For any other health concerns or questions, call AltaMed at 888-499-9303. We’re here to support you and your family’s healthy lifestyle, with primary care, specialty care, and preventive screenings and checkups.

Understanding the Risks of Opioids