Lesson “Opioids and the Overdose Epidemic”

First published 2017. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

America is facing a serious health crisis involving opioid drugs. On average, 3,900 people begin using prescription opioid painkillers for nonmedical use every day, greatly increasing each person’s risk for addiction and overdose. Deaths involving opioid overdoses have more than quadrupled since 1999. The article “Opioids and the Overdose Epidemic” helps to show the extent of the crisis as well as what is causing it. The article also explains that while prescription opioid pain medications can play an important role in a person’s medical care, they need to be used with extreme care. Included is advice on how students can keep themselves and loved ones safe.


Science Literacy, English/Language Arts, Health/Life Skills


RST.6-8.7 / RST.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts MS-LS1-3 / HS-LS1-2 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes Structure and Function in Living Things
RST.6-8.7 / RST.9-10.7 Evaluate content presented in diverse formats, including visually and quantitatively Personal and Community Health



  1. An epidemic occurs when a disease or health-related event or behavior happens in a community at far greater rates than would normally be expected. What evidence indicates that the United States is facing an opioid overdose epidemic?
    (Answers may include that more people died from drug overdoses in 2015 than any other year on record; heroin use and overdoses have increased across many age groups and populations; the number of people dying from opioid drugs today is more than four times the number who died in 1999.)
  2. What are some ways to help control the opioid overdose epidemic? Support your answer with textual evidence.
    (Answers may include to improve how opioid medications are prescribed and dispensed so that only people who really need the drugs get them; carefully monitor those who receive prescriptions; make medications such as naloxone readily available so that if a person overdoses, he or she can quickly get lifesaving help; increase education about opioids so people better understand the risks.)
  3. Nearly all people who use heroin also use at least one other drug. What impact can that have on overdose rates?
    (It may lead to higher overdose rates because mixing opioids with other drugs increases the risk for overdose.)
  4. What are at least three pieces of advice that can help people stay safe if they are prescribed opioid pain medications?
    (Answers may include to talk with their doctor to make sure that there are no other safe alternatives; take the medications only as prescribed; seek help if they begin taking opioids for nonmedical reasons; never combine opioids with alcohol or other drugs; don’t share prescriptions with other people; only take medications supplied by a doctor or pharmacy.)


  • Grades 6–8: What are three ways people can misuse prescription opioid pain medications? What are some possible consequences of this?
  • Grades 9–10: Explain at least three factors that may have led to an increase in the number of opioid overdoses in America.
  • Grades 11–12: Why do you think heroin use is increasing among many different populations in America? Support your answer with evidence from the text.

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