Understanding Opioid Use Disorder and embracing harm reduction strategies

Azzy Soave, Substance Use Navigator, Barton Health

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a complex and challenging condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide. It is crucial to approach this issue with compassion, empathy, and a focus on harm reduction strategies. By understanding OUD and using de-stigmatizing language, we can promote a more inclusive and supportive environment for those affected by this condition.

Opioid use disorder is a chronic medical condition characterized by the compulsive use of opioids despite adverse consequences. It affects people from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic background. Opioids, including prescription painkillers like oxycodone and illicit drugs like heroin, interact with the brain’s receptors, leading to pain relief and a sense of euphoria. However, continued use can result in physical dependence and addiction.

Language plays a significant role in shaping public perception and attitudes toward substance use disorder. Use language that promotes understanding, empathy, and support rather than perpetuating stereotypes or judgment. And instead of labeling individuals as “addicts” or “abusers” we can use person-first language, such as “individuals with opioid use disorder,” acknowledging the person behind the condition and recognizing their inherent worth.

Azzy Soave

Harm reduction focuses on minimizing the negative consequences of drug use while respecting individual’s autonomy and dignity. Here are some key harm reduction strategies:

Access to Treatment. Increasing access to evidence-based treatment options, such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), can help individuals manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings. In the MAT approach, medications like buprenorphine or naltrexone are used in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapies.

Overdose Prevention. Equipping individuals, their families, and communities with naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication, can save lives. Naloxone should be readily available and accompanied by training on its administration. Fentanyl testing kits can detect the presence of fentanyl in a drug batch or pills, powder, or injectables.

Needle and Syringe Programs. Providing clean needles and syringes helps prevent the transmission of bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. These programs also serve as entry points for individuals to access support and treatment.

Education and Awareness. Raising awareness about the signs of opioid overdose and the risks associated with opioid use can empower individuals to seek help and support. Education should extend to healthcare providers, community organizations, and the general public to reduce stigma and encourage compassionate care.

Supportive Services. Offering comprehensive support services, including counseling, mental health services, and assistance with housing and employment, can help individuals rebuild their lives and reintegrate into their communities.

Opioid use disorder is a complex health issue that requires a multifaceted approach. By adopting destigmatizing language and embracing harm reduction strategies, we can foster a more inclusive society that supports individuals with opioid use disorder. Together, we can prioritize empathy, understanding, and evidence-based interventions to address this public health crisis effectively.

Azzy Soave is a certified Substance Use Navigator with Barton Health, providing evidence-based treatment for substance use with support of the California Bridge program. Azzy and Dr. Elizabeth McNamara will host a free Wellness Webinar: “Destigmatizing Opioid Use Disorder Treatment and Harm Reduction” on Thursday, August 10 at 5pm. Register in advance, or view previously recorded webinars at For more information about the Barton Health Medication Assisted Treatment program, visit

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