Amid a worsening opioid abuse epidemic in the United States, new research suggest that use of the addictive pain medications may also increase an individual’s risk of pneumonia, meningitis, and other serious infections.
In a study published this week in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers indicate that users of opioid drugs may face a 60% increased risk of getting an invasive pneumococcal disease.
Some opioids have immunosuppressive properties, and previous animal studies have also shown an increased risk for infections linked to opioid use. To that end, researchers focused on the infection risk opioids may have in people.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University used data from the Tennessee Medicaid database linked to Medicare and Active Bacterial Core surveillance system databases from 1995 to 2014. The data focuses only on people legally prescribed opioids.
A total of 1,233 patients with invasive pneumococcal diseases who were older than 5 years were compared to more than 24,000 control patients who were matched by diagnosis date, age, and county of residence. Researchers used pharmacy prescription fills to determine opioid use.
According to the findings, patients who had invasive pneumococcal diseases (IPD), including ear infections, sinus infections, bacteremia, and meningitis, had a higher risk of also being an opioid user. Death rates for these infections are as high as 22% for meningitis, 20% for bacteremia, and 7% for pneumococcal pneumonia.
The risk of infection was the strongest for long-acting opioids, and opioids used at high dosages to 90 morphine milligram equivalents, with both increasing the risk of infection by about 70%.
Researchers warn that opioids are known to cause respiratory depression, which slows breathing. They also carry a higher risk of aspiration, when food is inhaled into the lungs during breathing. The risks may be the highest for patients who have weaker immune systems, especially older patients.
The study indicates the results do not establish cause and effect, however researchers indicate that doctors should use caution when prescribing opioids, especially to people at high risk.
Nearly 12 million Americans misused prescription opioids in the past year. More than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids. In fact, opioid deaths now outnumber breast cancer fatalities each year.