Opioid (Opiates) Abuse and Addiction

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on September 19, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 19, 2013

What Are Opioid Abuse and Addiction?

Opioids, also called opiates, are a class of drug. This class includes drugs derived from the opium poppy, such as morphine and codeine. It also includes synthetic or partially synthetic formulas, such as Vicodin, Percodan, oxycodone, and heroin. Many opioids are used to treat pain.

Some opioids, such as oxycodone, codeine, and morphine, are prescription pain medications. Using these medications for recreation or in a way not recommended by a doctor can be considered abuse.

Other opioids, like heroin, are illegal.

Opioids are highly addictive. Abuse can quickly lead to addiction. Both abuse and addiction can cause serious health problems, including death.

Opioids can be used in a variety of ways. They can be taken orally, inhaled through the nose, injected into a vein, or smoked in a cigarette. Prescription forms are sometimes used as suppositories. Effects may depend on the method of consumption. The type of opioid also determines its effect.

Opioids impact the brain, leading to temporary feelings of intense pleasure. Addiction to opioids can develop very quickly, even with minimal use. The addiction can be physical, in that a habitual user’s body craves the drug. It can also be mental, in that a user consciously desires the drug’s effects. A person who is addicted to opioids will do whatever it takes to get more of the drug, regardless of the risks or consequences.

Long-term opioid use has serious health consequences, including brain damage. Opioid abuse can impair the brain’s production of natural painkillers and dopamine (the brain’s “feel-good” chemical).

Find the Best Opioids for Chronic Pain »

What Are the Effects of Opioid Abuse and Addiction?

Opioids temporarily reduce pain and anxiety and create a sense of numbness in the body and mind. High doses can create a short-lived feeling of euphoria and drowsiness. These effects can make stopping difficult. Habitual users begin to crave this feeling, but the high is short-lived.

Opioid abuse and addiction can have negative mental and physical effects, such as:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • weakened immune system
  • slow breathing rate
  • coma
  • increased risk of HIV or infectious disease (common in intravenous use)
  • increased risk of hepatitis (common in intravenous use)
  • hallucinations
  • collapsed veins or clogged blood vessels
  • risk of choking

People addicted to opioids often have trouble achieving a satisfactory high because their tolerance increases. This leads to using more, which leads to stronger and graver effects in the body.

What Causes Opioid Addiction?

Using opioids, especially in a way not prescribed by a doctor, can cause addiction. Opioids are highly addictive, so even infrequent use can lead to physical dependence. Habitual opioid use causes changes in the brain, specifically in the pain center. This brings on addiction.

Who Is at Risk for Opioid Addiction?

Anyone who uses opioids is at risk for developing an addiction. The best way to prevent an addiction is to avoid all illegal drugs, and to use prescribed painkillers only as recommended by medical professionals.

While opioid use is a choice, some factors may increase risk of addiction. People with a family history of drug dependence and those who grow up in certain social or economic situations could be more at risk. Also, people who abuse alcohol or other drugs or who have a mental illness have an increased risk of opioid dependence.

What Are the Symptoms of Opioid Abuse and Addiction?

Signs and symptoms of opioid abuse and addiction include:

  • an increased tolerance for the drug
  • an inability to stop or reduce usage
  • withdrawal symptoms when you stop using
  • a desire to keep using even when health complications arise
  • an impact on quality of life, including relationships and employment
  • spending excess time and money on drugs
  • excessive sleeping or extreme weight loss or gain
  • turning to crime to pay for more opiates

If someone who is addicted to opioids stops using, he or she may have withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, sweating, insomnia, agitation, tremors, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and extreme mental and physical discomfort. Even people with a very minor dependence on prescription opioids can suffer from withdrawal.

The length and intensity of withdrawal depends on the type of opioid the user is addicted to, the length of the addiction, and the typical doses.

Longtime addicts may wish to consult with a medical professional before quitting.

How Is Opioid Addiction Diagnosed?

To diagnose an opioid addiction, your doctor will discuss your current usage and health history. He or she will determine the degree of your dependence and help suggest treatment options. Someone who seeks treatment for opioid addiction must commit to stopping.

How Is Opioid Addiction Treated?

Opioid addition is a complex disease, with physical, mental, social, and environmental factors. To be successful, treatment plans must address all these components. In some cases, hospitalization may be required.

Detoxification

Detoxification is often the first attempt at treatment. It is done in combination with other treatment options. It includes supervised withdrawal from the drug, with support and medication to help with the withdrawal symptoms. Detoxification alone is rarely successful in treating opioid addiction. Some people will suffer from tremors, hallucinations, confusion, delirium, intense anxiety, sleep disturbances, and body pain while detoxing.

Medication

Some opioid addicts have success with taking milder prescription opioids, such as methadone or buprenorphine, and slowly lowering the dose to wean themselves off the drug. This process, known as replacement therapy, is a common treatment for opioid addiction. Other medications may be used to lessen the withdrawal symptoms or cravings.

Treatment Facilities

Residential treatment programs work to deal with all facets of an addiction. These programs often include support groups, vocational rehab, and therapy. Programs can last for a few weeks or several months.

Alternative Therapies

Other solutions that help patients overcome addiction include exercise, hypnosis, acupuncture, and herbs, although the safety and efficacy of each is mostly unknown.

What Is the Outlook for Opioid Addiction?

People who abuse opioids or who become addicted to them are at an increased risk for premature death and serious health complications. Quitting is the only way to minimize or eliminate these risks. Prolonged use leads to tolerance, which requires higher doses to feel effects. Higher doses increase your risk of death or grave health consequences.

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