All About Opioids: Addiction, Effects, and Treatment
Opioids, also known as narcotics, are a type of drug that are commonly prescribed for pain relief. Examples are oxycodone, hydrocodone, tramadol, and fentanyl. Even the illegal drug heroin is classified as an opioid.
Some opioids are natural, derived from the opium plant, while others are synthetic or man-made.
While it is useful in many different medical scenarios, opioids can also be highly dangerous if abused or misused. They can cause side effects like drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and slowed breathing. In some cases, users can suffer from an opioid overdose, which can also be fatal.
Opioids are highly potent medications that have plenty of uses. But they can also be abused to the point where the person develops drug dependence or addiction. Drug dependence is when a person’s body has adapted to the constant presence of a certain substance. They experience withdrawal symptoms whenever they reduce their intake or attempt to quit.
Addiction, on the other hand, is when a person compulsively seeks out and uses drugs—in this case, opioids—even if they are already suffering from its effects. While opioid users are at risk of dependence and addiction, this risk is even higher for those who abuse the drugs for recreational purposes.
Unlike what many people believe, being addicted is not just a problem of willpower. Addiction is a serious medical problem, and one of the biggest public health problems in the United States. Opioid addiction, in particular, is a huge concern. Addressing these misconceptions and learning more about the condition will allow you to assist those who are struggling with addiction, whether it is yourself or a loved one.
Here we will discuss opioid addiction, opioid abuse, opioid overdose, and treatment for those who struggle with opioid-related problems.
What Are Opioid Medications Used for?
Before we go into opioid overdoses, effects of addiction, and what it takes to become addicted, we should first talk about the substance in question. We all know that opioids are used for pain relief, but what else should we know about these medications?
For starters, opioids are naturally found in the opium poppy plant. But to be more specific, opiates are drugs that are naturally derived from this plant, while opioids are actually the synthetic and semi-synthetic variants. These terms are often used interchangeably, however.
When taken, opioids produce a variety of effects by influencing the brain. These medications are able to block pain signals coming into the brain. This is why opioids are most commonly used as painkillers. That said, not all opioids are medications: heroin is an example of an opioid that is a street drug.
In terms of pain relief, opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids can also make a user feel relaxed, calm, and happy, which is why some people misuse opioids for the purpose of getting high. This euphoric sensation can be highly addictive.
Taking opioids comes with an inherent risk. Regular use can lead to tolerance and dependence. A pain physician will only prescribe it for a limited period of time. If a person becomes tolerant, they will have to take more and more of the drug just to experience the same effect. This is something your doctor will want to avoid, as this may lead to addiction.
Common opioid side effects include constipation, nausea, confusion, slowed breathing, and drowsiness.
Not to mention that an overdose is potentially fatal due to the effects of opioids on a person’s breathing and heart rate. Too much of these medications and your breathing could slow to a dangerous level. It could even stop a person’s breathing entirely, especially if mixed with alcohol. Overdose deaths related to opioids are sadly a common occurrence.
OxyContin, Vicodin, fentanyl, and heroin are some of the most well-known examples of opioids. Other examples of opioids are: oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, hydromorphone, methadone, meperidine, tramadol, and buprenorphine.
Before taking opioids, make sure to disclose your current medications to your doctor, as well as any history of drug use. This will help determine whether or not an opioid prescription is right for you.
Causes of Opioid Abuse
In order to curb opioid abuse and reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths, it is important to talk about the potential causes of opioid abuse. Not everyone ends up addicted to opioids started off by taking it in recreational settings. For many individuals, addiction can begin from a single prescription.
Believe it or not, some addicted individuals started taking opioids to relieve pain. But because of the euphoric effects of these medications, this can lead to prescription opioid abuse. Some people experience the high caused by their opioid prescription and begin misusing their medication.
Speaking of misusing a prescription, this is another common situation. Some people suffering from pain do not intend to abuse their prescription, but end up taking too much of their medication. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake.
In some cases, opioid abuse is way more deliberate. But the reality is, anyone who takes opioids for any reason is at risk of developing an addiction. Just like other drugs, opioid use disorder can happen to anyone.
There are prescription drug monitoring programs that do their part to protect people from the dangers of opioid addiction. But even you can keep an eye out for opioid abuse predictors to keep you and your loved ones safe from the risk of opioid addiction and opioid overdose.
Aside from being exposed to opioids, there are plenty of other factors at play. Being exposed to certain risk factors does not guarantee that you will become addicted to opioids, but the risk is higher for you than someone who does not have these risk factors. The more risk factors you are exposed to, the greater your risk of addiction and physical dependence.
Your medical history, drug use, alcohol abuse, family history, personal relationships, gender, age, and environment can all determine your relationship with medications and illegal drugs. Risk factors include peer pressure, stress, grief, lack of education, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse history, mental health conditions, health problems, etc. Someone who is exposed to several risk factors is vulnerable to addiction.
When it comes to opioid addiction, someone who experiences physical pain is at risk of becoming addicted because they are the ones who are most likely to get prescription opioids from their doctor. Some people even self-medicate and obtain opioids from friends and family members. They raid other people’s medicine cabinets for opioids. Some people even engage in doctor shopping, wherein they visit multiple doctors to get the same prescription opioids over and over again.
Regardless of where the opioids were obtained, whether it was acquired legally or illegally, these medications are responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in the US.
Opioids are highly addictive because of the way they work: they trigger the release of endorphins, which are the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters. They activate the brain’s reward center, immediately establishing a craving for this sensation. It motivates the brain to continuously seek out this pleasant experience and experience it repeatedly. This eventually leads to addiction, which is the compulsive use of the drug.
Once you get prescription opioids, it is not the end of the world. They actually can be very helpful for patients who are in pain. But you need to follow your doctor’s prescription carefully.
Aside from keeping an eye out for the warning signs and risk factors of opioid misuse, there are other ways to avoid opioid addiction.
Opioids are safest when used for three or fewer days to manage acute pain. This is usually done following surgery or a bone fracture. Work with your doctor so you can take the lowest dose possible and for the shortest possible time.
Because of their high risk for abuse, opioids are generally not used for long term pain management. Look for less addictive pain relievers and treatment options. Luckily, there are plenty of those that are available.
If you are living with someone with chronic pain who has to take opioids for pain management, help them stick with their prescription. Make sure they are taking exactly the amount that they need and no more than that. Watch out if your loved one is running out of medications more often or much sooner than they are supposed to. This may be a sign of drug abuse.
Keep in touch with your doctor if you experience any unusual symptoms or side effects while taking opioids.
What are the Effects of Opioid Addiction?
Taking opioids repeatedly over a certain period of time will have a serious effect on your mind and body. It affects the brain and also causes some serious damage to your health. Opioid abuse has short term and long term effects.
Over time, the user’s body will have a much slower production of endorphins as it builds tolerance for the drug. Taking the same dosage will stop triggering such strong, positive feelings, but they will still crave for the high. This will urge them to take more and more of the drug until they are actually addicted or drug dependent.
At any point during their substance abuse, they may overdose, which can be fatal. This is because opioids slow down the body’s essential functions like breathing.
Doctors today are now aware of the risks associated with opioids, which means they may not be as inclined to prescribe it like they used to. But still, addiction is a possibility for those who do have access to opioid medications.
When an addicted individual stops getting their supply, they may turn to illegal means in order to obtain opioids such as heroin. However, these illicit opioids may sometimes be laced with contaminants, or even more powerful opioids. This may provide a much more intense high, coupled with a much higher risk of an opioid overdose.
Look out for the symptoms of opioid addiction if you think someone you care about is misusing their prescription or obtaining opioids illegally. Addiction is characterized by the compulsive intake of a certain drug, even if it is already harming them. So the addicted person will prioritize opioids over everything else, losing interest in things they used to enjoy. Obtaining and using opioid medications becomes their top priority, neglecting their responsibilities. They will not be able to stop their opioid intake.
One clear sign of an addiction is repeatedly attempting to quit the substance, only to relapse after a few days. Their withdrawal symptoms and cravings will be too difficult to manage on their own.
Addiction’s effects are physical, psychological, and behavioral. The person’s physical health, mental health, and even their relationships can be affected by addiction. They may lie about their opioid intake or hide their substance abuse from loved ones.
Common symptoms to watch out for include: shallow or slow breathing, mood swings, depression, irritability, anxiety attacks, agitation, lowered motivation, and poor decision making.
An opioid overdose is also extremely dangerous, so you need to look out for its symptoms. Symptoms of an opioid overdose include: unresponsiveness or inability to wake up, slow breathing, irregular breathing, vomiting, slow, erratic pulse, no pulse, not breathing, loss of consciousness, and small pupils. Taking too many opioids may lead to an opioid overdose. If someone you love experiences these symptoms, seek immediate medical treatment. Call 911 right away.
Drug dependence is when the person can no longer function normally or “feel normal” without taking the drug. If they try to quit opioids at this point, they will experience painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Common withdrawal symptoms for opioid dependence are the following: nausea, vomiting, chills, tremors, pain, diarrhea, sweating, insomnia, and fatigue.
If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid abuse, addiction, or dependence, treatments are available. Later on we will talk about how various treatment programs work for opioid addiction as well as what to expect when you enter a rehab facility.
What is an Opioid Overdose?
An overdose is the body’s natural response when it receives too much of a substance or mix of substances. A lot of drugs can cause an overdose, and this includes opioids. An overdose can be intentional or accidental. A lot of overdose deaths are accidental.
Opioids in particular are dangerous because they lower the person’s blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. These sedating effects may relax a person if the drug is taken in low doses, but in larger doses these effects can be dangerous. Opioid overdose may lead to respiratory failure, coma, and death.
It can happen after taking a combination of opioids and alcohol. In many cases, overdoses are fatal. However, even if a person overdoses, it is possible to save them if treatment is provided quickly.
Naloxone, also known as the brand name Narcan, is an opioid agonist that prevents opioid overdose deaths. As an opioid agonist, it can block the effects of opioids on the body. Naloxone is often administered on someone who is experiencing an opioid overdose. Its effectiveness depends on the severity of the overdose. Narcan is available without prescription across the country.
During an overdose, the person may be unable to speak or wake up. Their fingernails may have a purple or bluish color. Their face may go pale. They may lose their consciousness, or their breathing and heartbeat may slow or stop completely. Watch out for the signs and symptoms of opioid overdose and call 911 immediately if you see one or more of them.
Addiction to Opioid Drugs: How Does Treatment Work?
Remember that addiction is more than just a problem of willpower. It is a chronic illness that needs to be treated the same way as any other medical condition. It doesn’t matter how the addiction began. Whether it is a prescription for chronic pain or due to recreational use, addiction is a medical disorder that requires proper treatment.
While the exact treatment process is different for each person, the main goal of treatment stays the same: to help them stop taking the drug. The approach involves getting the person to stop taking opioids for the short term and then teaching them how to maintain their sobriety for the long term.
There are many ways to go about this, and the approach will be different for everyone because addiction affects people differently. One patient may have completely different symptoms from another patient, even if they both abused the same substance. They may also have different circumstances causing their substance abuse.
The first step of the treatment journey is admitting that there is a problem. Unfortunately, a lot of people are in denial about their condition. But accepting the help that you need is an important step towards long-lasting recovery.
Once the person is ready to receive proper medical care, their condition will be assessed by medical professionals so that a personalized treatment plan can be developed for them.
Generally speaking, patients go through a period of medically-assisted detox. Detox is all about flushing out the harmful substances from the patient’s body–in this case, opioids. During detox, their intake will be lowered gradually as their withdrawal symptoms are managed.
Detox significantly lowers the risk of overdose, and it does so while keeping the patient safe and comfortable. In a rehab setting, the patient’s condition can be monitored by medical professionals. Medications may be administered to keep symptoms and cravings under control. Methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are often used for opioid withdrawal.
In addition to addressing the physical effects of addiction, it is also important to address its emotional and mental health effects. During therapy, a counselor or therapist helps the patient navigate the psychological aspects of addiction.
Therapy will help patients recognize their triggers, as well as unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. They can learn healthy coping mechanisms that they can use once they are outside of rehab. Recovery doesn’t end when you complete the treatment program. You still have to apply everything you’ve learned in rehab so you can turn your life around and start over again.
Individual and group therapy sessions help patients regain their confidence, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and rebuild their damaged relationships. They may even learn to build new relationships with people who help them stay on the right path. They can channel their energy into new projects, activities, and things that keep them motivated.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, helps people learn more about themselves and the way they address their problems through substance abuse. They will learn how to replace their negative thought patterns with healthy thoughts and behaviors.
Therapists will also help patients explore their feelings of self-worth, their relationships with people who use drugs or alcohol, and even their problems at work or home.
There is also a social aspect when it comes to treatment. Group therapy sessions involve sharing experiences and talking about your struggles with people who know and understand what you have been going through. Peer support reassures patients that they are not alone in their struggles.
Some rehab facilities even offer family therapy sessions to help rebuild those relationships if necessary. Family members can learn how to better support their addicted loved one as they fight for their sobriety.
As you can see, it takes a lot more than willpower to break free from the effects of addiction. And while there is no cure for this chronic condition, it can be managed, and addicted individuals can live a long, happy, drug-free life. It is a long-term process, but rehab will teach patients how to stay on the right path.
Treatment for addiction can either be inpatient or outpatient. One is not necessarily better than the other. It is all a matter of finding the right program that fits the patient’s unique needs. Inpatient treatment involves staying in a treatment facility for the duration of the program. While it is more focused and intensive, it is also more expensive. But in inpatient rehab, the patient can receive round the clock care from medical professionals. They are also removed from their usual distractions and triggers, allowing them to focus on their recovery.
Outpatient treatment is more affordable, but less intensive. It does not require patients to stay in a treatment center, but it involves scheduled visits. With this setup, the patient can still go to school, go to work, or take care of their family members while receiving addiction treatment. This is ideal for patients with mild to moderate addiction.
Prescription drug abuse is a serious problem, and it is far more common than you may think. So don’t get discouraged if you relapse or struggle with behavioral therapy. It is a life-long process that starts with seeking help.
If you or someone you love is dealing with an opioid addiction, seek treatment today. Look for a rehab near you and get started on your journey to recovery.