Opioids are a class of medications mostly used to treat pain. While they can improve your quality of life, opioids can be highly addictive.

Although the words are often used interchangeably, there’s a difference between opiates and opioids.

The term “opiates” is used to refer to naturally occurring compounds. The term “opioids” is used to refer to fully or partially synthetic compounds. However, both opiates and opioids can be addictive.

Examples of opiates include morphine and codeine. Commonly used opioids include oxycodone (found in OxyContin), tramadol, and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).

If you use opioids or opiates, it’s a good idea to be aware of the signs of addiction and to get help as soon as possible if you’re concerned about tolerance or misuse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2.7 million people ages 12 and older reported having an opioid use disorder in 2020.

Opioids bind to opioid receptors, which are found throughout the body. These opioid receptors then block pain signals and trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone associated with pleasure.

Because they provide pain relief and can induce feelings of pleasure, opioids can give you a pleasant sensation. But this sensation is temporary.

After an opioid dose wears off, you might find yourself wanting more so that you can feel that way again.

If you continue using opioids for some time and then abruptly stop, you might experience withdrawal symptoms. Because opioid withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, you might seek more opioids in order to avoid these symptoms.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms begin in the first 24 hours after your last dosage. These symptoms can include:

  • anxiety
  • excessive sweating
  • insomnia
  • muscle aches
  • restlessness
  • runny nose
  • yawning very often

Withdrawal symptoms can intensify over time. After the first day, you might experience:

  • abdominal cramping
  • blurry vision
  • diarrhea
  • dilated pupils
  • goosebumps on the skin
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid heart rate

The length of your withdrawal period depends on factors like the exact opioid drug you took, the severity of your opioid use, and your individual biology.

Using opioids for a short amount of time and under the guidance of a doctor significantly lowers the risk of developing an opioid use disorder.

But misusing opioids, such as taking more than prescribed or using someone else’s prescription, raises this risk. Some unique characteristics may further increase this risk.

Risk factors for opioid misuse or addiction include:

  • being younger when you start using opioids
  • childhood trauma
  • family history of substance use disorders
  • history of being sexually abused
  • personal history of substance use disorder
  • untreated mental health conditions

It’s important to remember that opioid use disorder can affect people of any demographic and background.

All people who use opioids should take precautions to avoid misusing opioids, including:

  • only using opioids as prescribed and not exceeding the dosage
  • exploring non-opioid pain medication options where possible
  • getting mental health support if necessary
  • looking out for the signs of opioid addiction

It’s also important to talk with your prescribing doctor if you have a personal or family history of substance use disorder.

If you suspect you’re developing a tolerance to opioids, get help as soon as possible, as this is a risk factor for addiction.

The words “tolerance,” “dependence,” and “addiction” are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things.

If you develop a tolerance to a substance, it becomes less effective for you. As such, you may need a higher dosage to experience the same effect.

For example, you may use higher amounts of opioids to experience the same pain-relieving and euphoria-inducing effects.

Physical dependence is what happens when your body starts to rely on a drug. You’ll have difficulty functioning without using it. When you stop using the drug, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms.

Both tolerance and dependence can lead to addiction.

An addiction to a substance, also known as a substance use disorder, is a medical condition characterized by an inability to control your use of a substance.

Opioid addiction greatly increases your risk of an opioid overdose, suicidality, and various mental and physical health conditions.

Substance use disorders — including opioid use disorder — are treatable. Your treatment plan will depend on your unique needs, and no single treatment works for everyone.

If you’re not ready to enter a treatment program, consider using harm-reduction techniques to lower your risk of overdosing. This could include:

  • keeping a supply of Narcan (naloxone), which can potentially save your life if you overdose on opioids
  • visiting a supervised consumption site instead of using opioids unsupervised
  • using a syringe exchange instead of using others’ needles, if you’re injecting substances

Treatment typically includes a combination of physical healthcare (so that you can withdraw safely) as well as mental health support.

You can learn more at the following links:

You can get help at the following resources:

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.