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Opioids are substances synthesized from Opium, the resin of the seedpod of a certain poppy plant. Its main effect is to block receptors responsible for pain, making it one of the most powerful analgesics in the medical world. It has been used medicinally since ancient times and presently, we found ways to take advantage of its other effects.

Opioids and Opiates

Opioids and Opiates cause three particular side effects: Cough suppression, Diarrhea suppression, and Respiratory Depression. In this article, we’ll explain how Opioids cause respiratory depression.

When you take opioids, either orally or intravenously, it goes all around our body through the bloodstream. To give you an idea how fast, it takes less than twenty seconds for a particle in your toe, to reach your head. As soon as the opioids hit your bloodstream, it’s scattered all over your body, affecting your nerves.

When it finally reaches your brain, it goes through the toughest security in your body, the blood-brain barrier. Neurotransmitters freely pass through this barrier of compact cells, so particles that look like neurotransmitters will pass through just as easily. When the opioids land inside your brain, then you’ll feel the brunt of the effects.

As the drugs affect brain and spine, it activates certain neurons that fire dopamine, causing you to feel euphoric. Some of those activated neurons are your “pre-Bötzinger complex”, a group of neurons located in your pons, which is a part of your brain stem. These neurons regulate your breathing and when affected, can affect the respiration rhythm.

Opioids cause a depressive effect on these neurons and slow neural firing. The lungs receive delayed messages from it, and effectively slows your breathing down. It also controls how “deep” your inhales are and with the area depressed, it could hinder the body from intaking more oxygen to compensate for the slowed breathing.

Combined with the euphoric effect, slowed breathing will lead to lethargy and utter relaxation, making it easy to fall asleep. In the case of an overdose, falling asleep may just save your life due to the lesser oxygen requirement during this state.

This is the side effect that becomes the dosage “ceiling” of Opioids. You won’t die immediately from all the other effects. Such effects include vomiting, severely impaired judgment, and severe lethargy, likely leading to a coma. What will kill you is your oxygen intake. There are cases where people who overdose breath fewer than ten per minute. This causes the body to lose life-giving oxygen, slowing your heart to a stop, then causes brain damage and eventually death.

In case of overdose, one such drug that can counter the respiratory depression is Naloxone. This drug is commonly used as it is an Opioid Receptor Antagonist, basically stopping the neurons from firing due to the opioid. The effects are quick, as the drug only has a half-life of thirty minutes. However, administration of the drug should be done ASAP, as brain damage can occur as short as four minutes after a person stops breathing.


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