This epidemic does not discriminate based on age, race or wealth. It has crept into the halls of high schools and hidden on the Internet and in living rooms. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly one-third of people who used drugs for the first time began by using a prescription drug non-medically.

Fatal fiction

Some people, particularly teens, believe prescription painkillers are safer than illicit drugs causing the perception of risk to plummet while use of these drugs to skyrocket.

With law enforcement crackdowns on prescription drug supply, the cost of these painkillers has steadily climbed. Many people have migrated to the cheaper, more sinister alternative: heroin. Data from the National Institute of Health suggests 1 in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. The results of this switch are often catastrophic, adding to a tidal wave of overdoses.

Fatal outcomes

Deaths linked to heroin jumped 39 percent in 2013 from the year before, according to data released in January by the CDC. Prescription opioid deaths still outnumber those from heroin, however the heroin deaths contributed to an overall 6 percent jump in drug overdose deaths in 2013 from 2012.

The prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic shows no signs of slowing down, and the problem has clearly outpaced our best efforts to curtail it. History has shown that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the drug problem. Ending this crisis will require a broad, multipronged approach to develop and implement education and prevention tools, as well as expanded treatment options.

"Addiction needs to be recognized as the brain disease it is. It is a disease that can be treated and from which individuals recover."

Open lines of communication between parents and children, teachers and students, and lawmakers and the public are crucial. Proactive education about prescription drug misuse, heroin use, suicide and overdose is necessary. These are dangerous drugs with real consequences, and communities cannot be blinded by the stigma of addiction.

Additionally, addiction and overdosing can be prevented by cautious prescribing of painkillers. Prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMP) provide good tools to curb doctor shopping by individuals with an addiction and identify improper prescribing. In fact, after one year of using a PDMP, New York saw a 75 percent drop in patients who saw multiple prescribers to obtain the same drugs. In Florida, new and stronger regulations on pain clinics stopped health care providers from dispensing prescription painkillers from their offices, resulting in a 50 percent decrease in overdose deaths from oxycodone over two years.

Awareness is key

Addiction needs to be recognized as the brain disease it is. It is a disease that can be treated and from which individuals recover. Individuals with substance use problems need access to safe, effective pain treatment and need to know how to use the resources available to them through the Affordable Care Act.

Only access to education, prevention, treatment and recovery support will be able to put an end to the devastating consequences of this epidemic.