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Navigation: The Opioid Epidemic, Types of Opioids and Their Effects: Substance Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction, Natural Opioids, Semi-Synthetic Opioids, Synthetic Opioids, What Are the Effects of Opioid Abuse?, How Does Drug Abuse Start?, What Are the Risk Factors for Opioid Use Disorders?, Opioid Dependence and Drug Addiction, Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms, Effects of Opioid Overdose, Treatment for Opioid Addiction

With the opioid drug crisis affecting thousands of people across the US, it is incredibly important to discuss the nature of these substances to understand their effects and protect your loved ones from their dangers.

Opioids are a class of drugs that are primarily used for their pain-relieving properties. They act on the opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body to reduce the perception of pain.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription pain relievers and illegal drugs, such as heroin. Some commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine. These medications can be effective for managing pain when used as prescribed and under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

But while it has its uses in the medical field, it can also produce a feeling of euphoria and sedation. This makes opioids potentially addictive.

Opioids have the potential for misuse, dependence, and addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes opioid abuse as the problematic use of prescription or illicit opioids.

Opioid abuse occurs when people use these substances in ways that are not prescribed by a healthcare professional or for non-medical purposes. This can include taking higher doses than prescribed, using opioids without a prescription, using them more frequently than recommended, or using opioids to achieve euphoria or a “high.”

Here we are going to take a closer look at the different types of opioids so we can understand their effects better.

The Opioid Epidemic

Opioid addiction is a serious concern, as repeated misuse can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Over time, individuals may require higher doses of opioids to achieve the desired effects, which can increase the risk of overdose and other negative health consequences.

In fact, this is such a serious problem that it has evolved into a full-blown epidemic. The opioid epidemic refers to the significant increase in opioid-related misuse, addiction, and overdose deaths. This epidemic has been recognized as a public health crisis not only in the US but in many other countries.

Several factors contributed to the rapid spread of the epidemic, including the aggressive marketing of prescription opioids, a lack of awareness about the addictive nature of these drugs among both prescribers and patients, inadequate pain management practices, and socioeconomic factors such as poverty and unemployment.

The consequences of the opioid epidemic have been devastating. There has been a sharp increase in opioid-related overdoses and deaths, as well as a rise in the number of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction. The impact extends beyond individual lives to affect families, communities, and the healthcare system as a whole.

Efforts to address the opioid epidemic have focused on multiple fronts, including increasing access to addiction treatment and recovery services, expanding the availability of naloxone (an overdose-reversing medication), implementing prescription drug monitoring programs to track and prevent overprescribing, promoting safer prescribing practices, organizing prevention programs involving families, and raising public awareness about the risks and consequences of opioid misuse.

The crisis continues to be a complex challenge for healthcare providers, policymakers, law enforcement agencies, and communities. This is why we need to do our part in fighting the opioid epidemic beginning in our own homes.

Types of Opioids and Their Effects: Substance Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction

Opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription medications and illegal substances derived from the opium poppy plant or synthesized in a laboratory. Before we take a closer look at each of them, here are the three main types of opioids:

Natural opioids: These are derived directly from the opium poppy plant. Examples include morphine and codeine. Natural opioids are potent pain relievers and have a high potential for abuse.

Semi-synthetic opioids: These opioids are derived from natural opioids but are chemically modified. Examples include oxycodone, hydrocodone, and heroin (diacetylmorphine). They are often prescribed for severe pain management but can also be illegally obtained. Semi-synthetic opioids are highly addictive.

Synthetic opioids: These opioids are entirely human-made in a laboratory. They have properties similar to natural opioids but are manufactured with specific chemical structures. Examples include fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol. Synthetic opioids can be many times stronger than natural or semi-synthetic opioids, posing a significant risk of overdose.

All of these opioids have similar effects including pain relief, euphoria, and relaxation. But when abused, opioids can produce deadly effects such as respiratory depression, which can slow down the central nervous system, including breathing. High doses of opioids can lead to severe respiratory depression, coma, or even death.

Opioid abuse can also lead to drug dependence and addiction, which we will discuss in detail later on.

Because of the dangers of opioids, it is important to take prescription medicines exactly as prescribed by your physician.

Natural Opioids

Natural opioids are compounds derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) or other natural sources that exhibit analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. Examples of natural opioids include morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, and noscapine.

Morphine: Morphine is one of the most well-known and potent natural opioids. It is extracted from the opium poppy and used for the treatment of severe pain.

Codeine: Codeine is another natural opioid derived from the opium poppy. It is less potent than morphine and is commonly used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant.

Thebaine: Thebaine is an alkaloid found in the opium poppy and serves as the precursor for the synthesis of other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. It has stimulant effects and is not typically used for its analgesic properties.

Papaverine: Although not primarily used as an analgesic, papaverine is a natural opioid alkaloid found in the opium poppy. It acts as a smooth muscle relaxant and is sometimes used to treat spasms in the blood vessels.

Noscapine: Noscapine, also known as narcotine, is a natural opioid alkaloid found in the opium poppy. It is not used for its analgesic effects but rather as an antitussive (cough suppressant).

Despite being derived from natural sources, these drugs can still be potent. They can cause the same brain changes as other opioids, and therefore they have the same potential for abuse and addiction. It is crucial to use them under the supervision and guidance of a healthcare professional.

Semi-Synthetic Opioids

Semi-synthetic opioids are opioids that are derived from natural compounds but are chemically modified to enhance their properties. Some examples of semi-synthetic opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, buprenorphine, and the illicit drug heroin.

Oxycodone: Oxycodone is one of the most commonly prescribed opioids for pain relief. It is derived from thebaine, and it is chemically modified to increase its potency.

Hydrocodone: Hydrocodone is another widely prescribed opioid used for pain management. It is derived from codeine through chemical modifications. Hydrocodone is often combined with other medications like acetaminophen to increase its effectiveness.

Hydromorphone: Hydromorphone is a potent semi-synthetic opioid derived from morphine. It is commonly used in medical settings for the management of severe pain.

Buprenorphine: Buprenorphine is a semi-synthetic opioid that is unique because it has both agonist and antagonist properties. It is used to treat opioid dependence and chronic pain.

Heroin (diacetylmorphine): Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive opioid. It is synthesized from morphine by acetylating it, resulting in a more potent and lipophilic form.

These are just a few examples of semi-synthetic opioids. Just like natural and synthetic opioids, semi-synthetic opioids can be highly addictive.

Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are a class of drugs that are chemically synthesized to mimic the effects of natural opioids, such as morphine or heroin. They are typically developed for medical purposes, but some have also been illicitly produced.

Some examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl, carfentanil, methadone, tramadol, and meperidine.

Fentanyl: Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is much stronger than morphine. It is commonly used in medical settings for pain management, especially in cases of severe pain. Illicitly produced fentanyl has also become a significant concern due to its involvement in opioid overdose deaths.

Carfentanil: Carfentanil is an extremely potent synthetic opioid that is primarily used as a tranquilizer for large animals, such as elephants. It is estimated to be about 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Due to its high potency, carfentanil is considered highly dangerous and has been associated with overdose deaths.

Methadone: Methadone is a synthetic opioid primarily used for the treatment of opioid dependence and chronic pain. It is a long-acting opioid agonist that helps reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms in individuals with opioid addiction.

Tramadol: Tramadol is a synthetic opioid used to treat moderate to moderately severe pain. It works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and inhibiting the reuptake of certain neurotransmitters. Tramadol also has some properties similar to antidepressants, as it affects serotonin and norepinephrine levels.

Meperidine (Pethidine): Meperidine is a synthetic opioid used for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. It has a similar mechanism of action to morphine but is shorter-acting. Meperidine is less commonly prescribed due to its potential for toxic metabolite accumulation at high doses.

These are just a few examples of synthetic opioids. Synthetic opioids can be highly potent and carry a significant risk of addiction and overdose, especially when used improperly or illicitly.

What Are the Effects of Opioid Abuse?

Abusing opioids can have severe consequences on a person’s physical and mental health. A lot of the effects of opioid abuse are severe and require immediate medical treatment. For example, opioids can depress the central nervous system, leading to respiratory problems. In cases of drug overdose, it can lead to respiratory failure, where breathing becomes dangerously shallow or stops altogether. Lack of oxygen can cause brain damage or be fatal.

Opioid overdoses in general are extremely dangerous. On top of respiratory failure, it can also lead to coma or death.

Opioids are also highly addictive. Prolonged use can lead to physical dependence. When the body becomes dependent on opioids, it begins to require the drug just to function normally. If opioid use is abruptly stopped or significantly reduced, withdrawal symptoms can occur.

Interestingly, the excessive use of these pain medications can also lead to increased pain sensitivity. Long-term opioid abuse may lead to hyperalgesia, a condition wherein individuals become more sensitive to pain. It creates a dangerous cycle of feeling pain because of opioid misuse and then using opioids for pain relief.

Opioid abuse can also contribute to the development of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. It can also impair cognitive function, memory, and decision-making abilities.

The effects of opioid abuse extend beyond the individual, affecting other people around them as well. Opioid abuse often leads to strained relationships, loss of employment, financial difficulties, legal problems, and a decline in the overall quality of life.

Individuals may prioritize drug use over responsibilities and obligations, leading to a breakdown in personal and professional life.

Take note that the specific consequences of opioid abuse may vary from person to person. Addiction affects people in different ways. Seeking professional help is crucial for those who are struggling with opioid abuse and addiction.

How Does Drug Abuse Start?

Opioid abuse can start in various ways, and individual experiences may vary. But for a lot of people, opioid abuse begins with a legitimate prescription of a medication. Since opioids are often given to patients struggling with moderate to severe pain, they can be exposed to the addictive nature of these medications.

If a person takes opioids for an extended period, they may develop a tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the same level of pain relief. This can potentially lead to misuse and dependence. Doctors should keep a close eye on their patients who have been prescribed with opioids. Patients should keep their doctor informed about any side effects that they encounter while taking these medications.

That said, there are others who start using opioids without a prescription. Some people obtain it from friends, family members, or even illegal sources. Using opioids for pain without a prescription can be harmful because your required dosage may be different from your loved ones’. Recreational use of opioids to achieve euphoria and relaxation can be equally harmful.

Teens and young adults are especially prone to peer pressure and trying drugs out of curiosity, so this is another possible reason for substance abuse.

People with a history of substance abuse, such as alcohol or other drugs, may be at a higher risk of opioid abuse. The underlying factors contributing to substance abuse issues, such as genetic predisposition, environmental factors, or mental health conditions, can also play a role.

Everyone’s journey with opioid abuse is unique, and these pathways are not exhaustive. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid abuse, seeking professional help and support is crucial.

What Are the Risk Factors for Opioid Use Disorders?

There are many factors that determine a person’s risk of developing an opioid use disorder (OUD). For most people, it’s a combination of different factors that eventually culminate in the development of an addiction.

Before we talk about these risk factors, it is important to note that having risk factors does not guarantee that you will become addicted. But generally speaking, you have a higher risk of becoming addicted the more risk factors you have. Here are the different risk factors associated with opioid use disorders:

Genetic Factors: Certain genetic variations can increase an individual’s susceptibility to developing OUD. Genetic factors can influence an individual’s response to opioids, their pain sensitivity, and their vulnerability to addiction.

Personal or Family History of Substance Use Disorders: Individuals with a personal or family history of substance use disorders, including opioids, have a higher risk of developing OUD. Genetic and environmental factors may contribute to this increased susceptibility.

Chronic Pain and Prescription Opioids: People who experience chronic pain and receive long-term prescription opioid treatment are at a higher risk of developing OUD. Prolonged exposure to opioids can lead to physical dependence and potential misuse.

Social and Environmental Factors: Certain social and environmental factors can contribute to the development of OUD. These include a history of trauma, childhood abuse or neglect, peer pressure, low socioeconomic status, unemployment, and lack of social support.

Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders: OUD often co-occurs with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with these conditions may be more vulnerable to developing OUD as they may use opioids as a form of self-medication.

Age and Gender: OUD can affect individuals of any age or gender. However, some studies suggest that young adults, particularly males, may have a higher risk of developing OUD.

On the flip side, there are also protective factors that reduce a person’s risk of becoming addicted to opioids. Examples of protective factors are the following: strong social support, healthy family relationships, access to healthcare, good mental health, healthy coping mechanisms, positive peer influences, education, stable employment, knowledge and awareness of the risks of opioids, and effective pain management alternatives.

While these factors can lower the risk of OUD, they may not guarantee immunity. Individual circumstances and vulnerabilities can still influence the likelihood of developing opioid use disorder. The interplay of various factors contributes to an individual’s susceptibility to OUD, and each person’s experience is unique.

Opioid Dependence and Drug Addiction

When a person uses opioids regularly, their brain and body can develop a tolerance to the drug, meaning that they require increasingly larger doses to achieve the desired effects. Over time, this tolerance can lead to physical and psychological dependence on opioids. Opioid dependence is a complex condition that involves both physical and behavioral aspects.

Physical dependence occurs when the body becomes accustomed to the presence of opioids and adapts its functioning accordingly.

If the drug is suddenly stopped or the dose is significantly reduced, the individual may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological dependence refers to the compulsive urge to use opioids due to the pleasurable effects and the need to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Individuals with opioid dependence often experience a loss of control over their drug use and may spend a significant amount of time and effort obtaining and using opioids, despite negative consequences on their health and relationships.

Psychological dependence is similar to drug addiction. Opioid addiction, also known as opioid use disorder, is a chronic and relapsing medical condition characterized by the compulsive use of opioids despite negative consequences.

Common signs and symptoms of opioid addiction include: compulsive drug use, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, neglecting responsibilities in favor of taking drugs, becoming physically dependent, and having withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. Treatment for opioid dependence and addiction typically involves a combination of medication-assisted treatment, detox, and psychosocial interventions. These approaches aim to reduce cravings, manage withdrawal symptoms, address underlying psychological factors, and support long-term recovery.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

If an opioid dependent individual starts lowering their intake or attempts to stop taking opioids altogether, they may experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity depending on factors such as the type and amount of opioids used, the duration of use, and the individual’s overall health. Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, muscle aches and pains, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, sweating and chills, goosebumps, depression, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure.

Loved ones may also notice changes in their appearance such as dilated pupils, runny nose and watery eyes, or having “cold turkey” skin. They may also exhibit changes in their behavior, with symptoms like fatigue, lethargy, excessive yawning, restlessness, agitation, and mood swings.

It is also common for people going through withdrawal to experience intense drug cravings.

The onset of opioid withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the half-life of the specific opioid used. Short-acting opioids like heroin tend to produce withdrawal symptoms within a few hours after the last dose, while longer-acting opioids like methadone or buprenorphine may lead to symptoms appearing within 1-2 days.

Opioid withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable and, in some cases, potentially dangerous. It is recommended that individuals seeking to stop using opioids do so under medical supervision, ideally in a specialized detoxification program or under the care of a healthcare professional. They can provide support, monitoring, and, if necessary, prescribe medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms and increase the chances of successful recovery.

Effects of Opioid Overdose

One of the most dangerous potential effects of opioid use is overdose. Opioid overdose can have severe and potentially life-threatening effects on the body.

Because opioids are central nervous system depressants, they can slow down the body’s vital functions, such as breathing and heart rate.

Here are some of the effects associated with opioid overdose:

Respiratory depression: Opioids can cause a person to breathe more slowly and shallowly, or even stop breathing altogether. This can lead to oxygen deprivation, brain damage, and death if not promptly treated.

Cyanosis: As a result of decreased oxygen levels in the blood, cyanosis may occur. Cyanosis is characterized by a bluish discoloration of the lips, skin, and nails.

Unresponsiveness: Opioid overdose can cause a person to become unresponsive or unconscious. They may not respond to attempts at stimulation or verbal communication.

Pinpoint pupils: Opioids can cause the pupils to constrict significantly, leading to pinpoint pupils. However, it’s important to note that pinpoint pupils are not always present in opioid overdose cases.

Decreased heart rate and blood pressure: Opioids can lower heart rate and blood pressure, which can result in dizziness, fainting, and cardiovascular complications.

Nausea and vomiting: Some individuals may experience nausea, vomiting, or gagging during an opioid overdose.

Seizures: In some cases, opioid overdose can trigger seizures, which are abnormal electrical activities in the brain. Seizures can further complicate the overdose situation.

Coma: Severe opioid overdose can cause a person to enter a coma, which is a prolonged state of unconsciousness.

If someone experiences an opioid overdose, it is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention. Prompt administration of the opioid overdose-reversing medication naloxone and medical intervention can be life-saving. It’s essential to call emergency services right away if you suspect an opioid overdose.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

The treatment for opioid addiction typically involves a combination of medications, counseling or therapy, and support from healthcare professionals.

Certain medications may be administered to help keep cravings and withdrawal symptoms under control. Methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are some of the medications used in opioid addiction treatment. 

Patients go through behavioral therapies to help them understand the nature of their addiction, replace unhealthy thought patterns, recognize their triggers, and develop a plan for maintaining their sobriety after they leave rehab.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of behavioral therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors related to opioid use.

Contingency Management is a type of treatment that incentivizes abstinence by providing rewards or privileges for drug-free urine tests. Meanwhile, motivational interviewing is a client-centered approach that helps individuals find motivation and commitment to change their behavior.

Keep in mind that there are countless programs out there that address addiction, and each rehab center will vary in its approach.

The best treatment plans are tailored to the individual’s specific needs and condition. Ongoing support and monitoring are usually required so that patients can stay on the right track. Look for a drug rehab center near you today to learn more. Your road to recovery begins today.

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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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