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Opioid addiction has become a major public health crisis in recent years, with the United States facing an opioid epidemic.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.1 million people in the US suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. Meanwhile, an additional 467,000 are addicted to heroin.

In fact, the number of people who lost their lives to drug overdose in 2021 was over six times the number in 1999. Even from 2020 to 2021, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths increased more than 16%. [1]

The opioid epidemic has had a serious impact on individuals, families, and communities across the country.

Opioid addiction effects can be devastating, that’s why it is important to discuss them. If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction, know that there is help available. Recovery is possible.

In this article, we will explore the physical and mental effects of opioid addiction. We will also explore the various treatment options for opioid addiction.

What is Opioid Addiction?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and illegal substances like heroin. While they can help with pain management, they can also be dangerous when misused. Unfortunately, it is very common for people with opioid prescriptions to misuse or abuse their medications.

Opioid addiction refers to a chronic and relapsing medical disorder characterized by a compulsive urge to use opioids despite harmful consequences.

This condition can result from different practices and behaviors. Opioids are frequently misused due to their high abuse potential. Some of these medications can change the way the brain works, making users more susceptible to abuse. [2]

When opioids are taken, they bind to specific receptors in the brain called opioid receptors, which are primarily located in areas involved in pain perception and pleasure. These receptors are also found in regions related to reward and reinforcement.

When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals and produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation. This effect is highly reinforcing, as it creates a strong sense of pleasure and relief. With continued use, the brain adapts to the presence of opioids by reducing its own natural production of neurotransmitters like endorphins, which are involved in pain relief and pleasure.

Simply put, opioids interact with the brain’s reward system. Opioid tolerance can be developed within the span of a few days, and the withdrawal symptoms can be severe. This tolerance can lead to dependence, where the body relies on the drug to function normally. [2]

Addiction can be incredibly challenging to overcome and typically requires a combination of medical intervention, therapy, support groups, and lifestyle changes.

Physical Effects

Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and blocking pain signals. However, they also produce a sense of euphoria, leading to their high potential for abuse and addiction. It goes without saying that these drugs, when abused, can cause serious health problems.

One of the most significant physical effects of opioid addiction is respiratory depression, which can lead to slowed breathing and even death.

If you spot the signs of an opioid overdose, call 911 immediately. The signs of opioid overdose include: choking, gurgling sounds, vomiting, limp body, slow or shallow breathing, small pupils of the yes, loss of consciousness, pale or cold skin, faint heartbeat, and purple lips or fingernails. [2]

Opioids can suppress the respiratory system, leading to slowed breathing, shallow breaths, or even respiratory arrest. This is a primary reason for fatal opioid overdoses. Seek medical attention right away if you or your loved one is exhibiting these symptoms.

Aside from a drug overdose, opioids can have other severe physical effects, impacting various systems and organs.

Drug tolerance is when a person requires higher doses to achieve the same effect. This can lead to increased drug consumption and a higher risk of overdose. Over time, the person may also develop drug dependence. Dependence is when the body becomes reliant on opioids to function normally.

Abruptly stopping or reducing opioid use can result in withdrawal symptoms such as muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, and insomnia.

Opioid use can also cause constipation, which can be severe and chronic, leading to bowel obstruction or other digestive issues.

These medications can have cardiovascular effects. Opioids can cause fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of cardiovascular complications.

Its misuse can even lead to liver strain, liver damage, or liver failure. The risk is much higher if opioids are taken in combination with other substances, like alcohol.

There are even instances wherein these painkillers may cause increased pain sensitivity due to long-term exposure. This condition is called hyperalgesia.

Ultimately, prolonged opioid use can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. It can disrupt the normal production and regulation of hormones in the body, leading to issues like decreased libido, infertility, or menstrual irregularities.

It’s crucial to seek medical help for opioid addiction as it often requires a comprehensive treatment plan involving behavioral therapies, medications like methadone or buprenorphine, and support systems to manage both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

Mental Effects

In addition to the physical effects, opioid addiction can also have severe mental health consequences. Opioids can alter brain chemistry and lead to changes in mood, behavior, and decision-making.

Chronic opioid use can also cause changes in the brain’s reward system, leading to a strong desire to continue using the drug. This is what makes it so addictive.

It is common for people with a substance use disorder to develop a co-occurring mental health disorder. This is due to the complex relationship between substance abuse and mental illness. Sometimes opioids can cause mental health effects. In other cases, the drugs simply exacerbate existing mental health conditions.

For example, opioid addiction can lead to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The brain’s reward system is altered by opioid use, which can disrupt the natural balance of neurotransmitters, affecting mood regulation.

Depression, anxiety, and the despair of addiction can elevate the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors among those addicted to opioids.

Those with co-occurring disorders often require specialized treatment. Dual diagnosis treatment is specifically designed to help those who have both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. This type of treatment focuses on treating both conditions simultaneously to increase the chances of long-term sobriety.

Aside from the physical aspects of addiction, some people may also become psychologically dependent on opioids, where they feel unable to cope with life’s stressors or function without the drug.

Opioid abuse can also impair cognitive function, affecting memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. This can exacerbate mental health issues and hinder recovery.

Addressing both the addiction and its mental health effects typically requires comprehensive treatment. This includes therapy, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), support groups, and in some cases, residential programs. It’s essential to provide holistic care that addresses both the addiction and the mental health aspects for a more successful recovery.

Other Effects of Opioid Addiction

Experts agree that the opioid epidemic has reduced labor force participation in the US. While opioids are supposed to address pain and increase people’s ability to work and stay productive, its widespread misuse has led to opioid use disorders, disruptions in the labor supply, and unprecedented deaths. [4]

But beyond these economic effects, opioid addiction can also affect other aspects of a person’s life. Addiction not only affects the individual but also the people around them such as their loved ones.

Opioid addiction can ripple into various aspects of a person’s life, extending well beyond its immediate physical and mental impacts.

Addiction often strains relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Addicted people tend to exhibit erratic behavior. They may lie or manipulate others because of their substance abuse.

Addicted individuals may also withdraw from social activities, isolating themselves to conceal their addiction or due to shame and guilt.

Illegal drug use can lead to legal problems, including arrests, fines, or incarceration due to possession or associated crimes.

Addiction can lead to absenteeism, reduced work quality, or even job loss, impacting one’s financial stability. It can even lead to financial instability due to overspending on opioids. Some will even go as far as deplete their savings to acquire the drugs, especially if it is difficult to get new prescriptions.

They may engage in risky activities to obtain drugs, such as visiting dangerous areas or associating with risky individuals.

Watch out for changes in their behavior if you think someone you love may be abusing opioids. Neglect of personal hygiene, erratic eating habits, and lack of self-care are common among those battling addiction. Beyond direct physical effects, neglect of health due to addiction can exacerbate existing health issues or lead to new ones.

An addicted person may begin to neglect their usual responsibilities. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy because all their time and attention is going towards opioid abuse. Parents can neglect or abuse their children due to impaired caregiving abilities. It can even lead to the breakdown of family dynamics, leading to conflicts, separation, or divorce.

Opioid addiction can lead to fatal consequences, either directly through overdose or indirectly due to associated health complications. It is an overwhelming condition that impacts every aspect of a person’s life.

Understanding these potential consequences can help with prevention. It can spread awareness about the dangers and the long-term consequences of substance abuse. It can even remind healthcare practitioners to prescribe these medications with caution.

The effects of opioid addiction permeate nearly every aspect of a person’s life. It can have far-reaching consequences beyond the initial physical and mental health impacts. Treatment, support, and a comprehensive approach are crucial to address these different challenges.

Addiction Recovery

By now we’re well-aware that opioid abuse can lead to long-term consequences. Prolonged opioid abuse can lead to chronic health conditions like heart disease, respiratory issues, or infections. It may even result in permanent alterations in brain structure and function, impacting cognitive abilities and decision-making.

If someone you love is going through an opioid overdose, lightly tap, shake, or shout at the person to get a response. Rub your knuckles on their breastbone if you do not get a response. If they respond, try to keep them awake and call 911. [5]

If any of these actions do not elicit a response, try to administer naloxone. Follow the instructions on the package. Make sure you still call 911.

You may have to perform mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing if their skin is blue, if they have dark-colored lips, or if their breathing is shallow or non-existent. Do this by tilting their head back and lifting their chin until their mouth opens. Give two quick breaths to start and then a strong breath every 5 seconds. [5]

Perform CPR if they are not breathing or do not have a pulse. Push down on their chest repeatedly at a rate of 100 times per minute. After every 30 compressions, deliver rescue breaths. Stay with them until emergency responders arrive.

The physical and mental effects of opioid addiction highlight the importance of seeking help and entering addiction recovery. Recovery from opioid addiction is a long-term process. It often requires a comprehensive approach, including medical treatment, therapy, and support from loved ones.

Medication-assisted treatment is often used for opioid addiction treatment. It helps patients manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings during the early stages of recovery. Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. They work by either mimicking the effects of opioids (but in a milder way) or just blocking its effects.

MAT is supported by behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management. These treatments can help patients address the underlying causes of their addiction and develop coping skills to prevent relapse.

Every rehab facility may offer a different set of programs. Remember that the best treatment programs are personalized to the patient’s specific needs and recovery goals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to drug addiction.

Treatment may be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting. The patient may also join support groups, which are a great source of emotional support and accountability.

Long-term recovery often requires ongoing support. After completing initial treatment, individuals might benefit from ongoing therapy, support groups, or check-ins with healthcare providers.

It’s important to note that treatment plans should be tailored to the person’s needs and might involve a combination of these approaches. Seeking professional help and guidance is crucial to effectively combat opioid addiction.

In conclusion, opioid addiction can have severe physical and mental effects. However, with the right treatment and support, individuals can overcome their addiction and lead fulfilling lives in recovery. Look for a rehab near you today to learn more about opioid addiction and available treatments.








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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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