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Effects of Opioids

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Effects of Opioids: What You Need to Know

The most dangerous thing about opioids is that they don’t just block pain signals, but they also produce a feeling of euphoria. It activates the brain’s reward system, making the user feel good.

Navigation: What Are Opioids?, What Are Prescription Opioids Used for?, Side Effects of Opioids, Drug Abuse and Opioid Overdose, Opioid Withdrawal, Why Are Opioids Addictive?, How to Stay Safe While Taking Opioids, Rehab is Your Best Chance


Opioids are a class of drugs that are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Also known as narcotics, opioids come in various forms such as tablets, capsules, oral solutions, injected solutions, and suppositories. Despite their medical uses, however, these drugs are also known for their high risk of abuse and addiction.

For this reason, it is important to understand the uses and potential side effects when taking opioid drugs. You should be familiar with the various opioid withdrawal symptoms, the potential effects of opioid overdose, and how to properly take these prescription medications in order to avoid opioid addiction.



What Are Opioids?

Before we get into their side effects, let’s talk about what opioids are first. Opioids are a class of drugs that are prescribed by healthcare providers for pain management. Opioids—sometimes called narcotics—are able to interact with nerve cells in order to reduce the sensation of pain.

The terms opioids and opiates are often used interchangeably, but they are technically not the same. Opioids are substances that are derived from the poppy plant but may be synthetic or semi-synthetic. These drugs have active ingredients that are created in a laboratory. Common examples of opioids are oxycodone, OxyContin, morphine, methadone, hydrocodone, Hydromorphone, fentanyl, etc.

Opiates, on the other hand, are naturally derived from the opium poppy plant. Examples are opium, codeine, and heroin.

We can say that all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. In any case, these two terms are commonly used interchangeably when talking about abuse and addiction. This is because they have the same effects on the body.

The most dangerous thing about opioids is that they don’t just block pain signals, but they also produce a feeling of euphoria. It activates the brain’s reward system, making the user feel good. This is what gets most people hooked on their medications. Whether they have been given prescription opioids by their doctor or they started using it illicitly for recreational purposes, the risk of developing an addiction is the same.

Opioids can easily become addictive even if you have a prescription. People taking opioids can quickly build up tolerance, which means they have to take more and more of the drug just to get the same effects.

Healthcare providers are actively modifying their practices for prescribing opioids to reduce the risk of addiction in their patients.

Opioids have several risks and benefits associated with them. In fact, they are even prescribed for some patients who are suffering from chronic coughing or diarrhea. But the potential for addiction is no joke. Addiction is a serious medical condition that affects millions of people. And because opioids are highly addictive, it is important to avoid abusing or misusing it.


What Are Prescription Opioids Used for?

Opioids are commonly prescribed for moderate to severe pain, including cancer-related pain, post-surgical pain, vascular pain, and some types of acute pain.

Opioids have also been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of chronic diarrhea and intense coughing. Loperamide is an example of an opioid used for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Meanwhile, codeine and dextromethorphan are used as cough suppressants.

When taken, opioids bind to the so-called opioid receptors that are found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. These opioid receptors regulate many bodily functions such as pain, stress, mood, respiration, gastrointestinal functions, and the brain’s reward system.

Opioids are perfect for pain management because they can regulate the transmission of pain signals. This is why a pain management specialist often provides prescription opioids for patients who are suffering from intense pain.

Opioids even help the brain produce more dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure. Dopamine floods the brain and makes the person feel euphoric, relaxed, and happy.

Side Effects of Opioids

While opioids can be beneficial when administered properly, they also have their inherent risks. Some of its common side effects are mild: users may experience dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.

However, it is also possible to experience more serious side effects like respiratory arrest or respiratory depression. It can even happen to healthy people, especially if high doses of opioids are taken. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or other lung conditions are at greater risk of fatal respiratory problems.

There is also the risk of developing tolerance or physical dependence. Dependence usually happens when someone has been taking opioids for a very long time. The body grows used to the continued exposure to opioids. It eventually reaches a point where they can no longer function normally without it.

If a drug dependent person suddenly reduces their intake or quits opioids altogether, they will go through severe withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe, and we will discuss these later in more detail.

But there are other potential side effects of opioid use such as muscle rigidity, hormonal dysfunction, delayed gastric emptying, involuntary muscle jerks, itchy skin, arrhythmia, dry mouth, and an increased sensitivity to pain. Some of these side effects are caused by chronic use of opioids.

Long-term use of opioids or chronic opioid use can lead to chronic constipation, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysregulation, sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), and increased risk of bone fractures. Continued use of opioids can also put the person at risk of an opioid overdose.

Drug Abuse and Opioid Overdose

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths are still the leading cause of injury-related death in the US. Drug overdoses continue to be a huge problem in the country. And the majority of overdose deaths are related to opioid use.

When too much of a certain drug is taken, an overdose may happen. Since opioids are potent medications that slow the body’s processes, they have an increased risk of being fatal. Opioid overdoses may be fatal or non-fatal.

Those who are struggling with an opioid use disorder are at greater risk of an overdose. The same can be said for people who take opioids just to get high, or misuse their prescription opioids by taking them too often or in greater dosages. Whether you do so accidentally or on purpose doesn’t matter as the risk of overdose remains the same.

The key to avoiding opioid overdose is to take the medication exactly as prescribed by the healthcare provider. Taken as prescribed, the chances of an opioid overdose are very low.

Do not mix opioids with other medications, and that includes alcohol. Mixing opioids and benzodiazepines, for example, can lead to a fatal overdose. Benzodiazepines are prescribed for insomnia and anxiety. Examples include diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin), and alprazolam (Xanax).

Tell your healthcare provider about all the medications and supplements you are taking before you start your opioid prescription. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, sedatives, anti-seizure medications, medications for sleeping disorders, medications for treating nerve-related pain, medications for treating psychiatric disorders, muscle relaxants, marijuana, certain antibiotics, certain antidepressants, certain antifungals, and certain antiretroviral drugs may interact with prescription opioids.

Even prescribed opioid medications can be deadly if misused. If someone you love is experiencing an opioid overdose, you need to seek medical assistance immediately. Naloxone is often administered for those who are going through an opioid overdose. This drug, commonly known as Narcan, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose almost immediately. Medical attention is still necessary after naloxone has been administered.

Opioid Withdrawal

Opioid withdrawal happens when a drug dependent person suddenly stops taking opioids or reduces their intake. This may also occur to those who have become tolerant. Withdrawal symptoms can be avoided if you take opioid medications exactly as prescribed.

Opioid misuse and opioid abuse can lead to withdrawal, which is an uncomfortable stage that is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that range from mild to severe.

Common withdrawal symptoms include runny nose, excessive yawning, watery eyes, hyperventilation, hyperthermia or high body temperature, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, and muscle aches.

The severity of symptoms may vary from one person to another. This is influenced by a number of factors such as the type of opioid used and how long opioids were taken.

The person may have to go through medical detox to properly recover without going through severe withdrawal. Detox is a process wherein the patient’s intake is gradually lowered while their withdrawal symptoms are managed by medical professionals.

Withdrawal should be done very slowly. Ideally, it should be in a treatment facility that is specifically designed to help people going through withdrawal. If the symptoms are severe, this may be done in a regular hospital.

Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and clonidine may be used to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Methadone is used as a long-term maintenance for those struggling with opioid dependence. After a certain period, the patient’s methadone intake is lowered as well. This method reduces the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.

Buprenorphine can help shorten the length of the detox process. Like methadone, it can be used for long-term maintenance for opioid dependence. It is often used with naloxone to prevent opioid misuse and dependence.

Finally, clonidine is used to reduce agitation, muscle aches, anxiety, sweating, runny nose, and cramping—which are often caused by withdrawal. However, this does not reduce cravings for opioids.

Why Are Opioids Addictive?

Opioids are addictive because aside from relieving pain, they also provide a feeling of euphoria, which people find extremely pleasurable. This sensation of intense happiness is often enough to get people hooked on their prescription medication.

Some addictions start innocently enough, with people simply taking their medicine as prescribed. But then their brain associates opioids with this euphoric high and eventually they begin to misuse their prescription. Sometimes it even happens accidentally with people taking a larger dose by mistake.

People who take opioids regularly can develop tolerance. This means they need more opioids just to get the same pain relief and euphoria. Some people begin to take more and more of the substance just to get that same high. It then develops into full blown substance abuse.

There’s also a layer of psychological dependence in which the person thinks they need opioids just to function on an everyday basis. They crave for the drug and spend most of their time thinking about ways to obtain it.

Addiction is when a person continues to take a certain drug—in this case opioids—even though they are already suffering from its effects. Regardless of the physical and mental health problems caused by their substance use disorder, they will still take it.

Addiction tends to affect not only the addicted individual but also the people around them. It impacts their relationships as the drug becomes their top priority. They may even begin to lose interest in things they used to enjoy, or neglect their responsibilities entirely. Opioids become central to their thoughts, emotions, and habits.

It is worth noting that not everyone who takes opioids becomes addicted to them. The risk of abuse and addiction are low if prescription instructions are followed carefully. Therefore if you take a prescription opioid for your chronic pain and you stick with the right dosage and schedule for it, you should be fine.

How to Stay Safe While Taking Opioids

There are plenty of precautions that you can take in order to minimize the risks of addiction, dependence, overdose, and withdrawal when taking opioids.

The most important thing to keep in mind is you need to take extra care when taking your prescription opioids. Do not take extra doses even if you accidentally miss a dose or think the dosage isn’t helping you with your symptoms. Every time you take one, make sure you double check your doctor’s instructions.

Do not crush, break, chew, or dissolve your opioid pills. If possible, go to the same pharmacy for all of your medications so that their computer system can alert the pharmacist if you are taking medications that may interact with opioids and put you in danger. Always tell your doctor about medications and substances you are taking.

On that note, you should also keep your healthcare provider informed about your medical history, any co-occurring mental health disorders, family history of substance use disorder, addiction, or alcoholism, and whether or not you are pregnant.

If you are under the effects of opioids, do not drive or operate any machinery that may injure you or the people around you. Opioids can cause drowsiness, which may hinder your motor functions.

If you experience any side effects, contact your medical provider. Talk to them about your dosage if you feel that it is not effective or if you are experiencing unwanted symptoms.

Keep your opioid medication away from children and pets. Children in particular are at risk of an accidental overdose if they take medication that is not for them. Store your prescription somewhere secure. Do not share your prescription opioids with anyone else even if they are having the same symptoms.

Do not drink alcohol while taking opioids. This may put you in danger due to extreme drowsiness and respiratory depression, as well as other serious side effects.

If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, opioids are not for you. Healthcare providers do not prescribe opioids for women who are pregnant because their baby can develop dependence. When exposed to opioids while in the uterus, a baby may develop neonatal abstinence syndrome. This occurs to about 50% of babies who are exposed to opioids by their pregnant mothers.

In fact, babies can develop withdrawal symptoms after birth. They may experience issues like sweating, diarrhea, sneezing, and abnormally rapid breathing.

Prescribed opioids are perfectly safe (and effective) if they are taken as prescribed. Be careful about your intake and you should be able to get the benefits of opioids without any of the side effects.

Even if you do become addicted to opioids accidentally, there is no reason to lose hope. Various treatment programs are available out there for those who need them.

You can find plenty of opioid addiction and treatment resources from various online sources, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). You can use this information to learn more about addiction, its effects, and how it is treated.

Look for a rehab near you today to learn more. Get started on the road to recovery.


Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.

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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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