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Opioids, also called opiates, are a class of drug. The class includes drugs derived from the opium poppy, such as morphine and codeine. It also includes synthetic or partially synthetic formulas, such as:
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 prescribed by a doctor can be considered abuse. Other opioids, like heroin, are illegal.
Opioids are highly addictive. Abuse can lead to addiction. Both abuse and addiction can cause serious health problems and can lead to death.
Opioids can be used in a variety of ways. They can be:
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 a temporary feeling 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, impacting multiple organs. Opioid abuse can impair the brain’s production of natural painkillers and dopamine, the brain’s "feel-good" chemical.
Opioids temporarily reduce pain and anxiety. They 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 it difficult to stop. 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:
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 on the body.
Signs and symptoms of opioid abuse and addiction include:
When someone who is addicted to opioids stops using the drugs, they’ll have withdrawal symptoms including:
Even people with a very minor dependence on prescription opioids can suffer from withdrawal.
The length and intensity of withdrawal depends on:
Longtime addicts may wish to consult a medical professional before quitting.
Anyone who uses opioids is at risk for developing an addiction. The best way to prevent an addiction is to avoid all illegal drugs. Only use prescribed painkillers as recommended by medical professionals.
While opioid use is a choice, some factors may increase a risk of addiction. People with a family history of drug dependence and those who grow up in certain social or economic situations can be more at risk. People who abuse alcohol or other drugs, or who have a mental illness, have an increased risk of opioid dependence.
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, which can bring on addiction.
To diagnose an opioid addiction, your doctor will discuss your current usage and health history. They will determine the degree of your dependence and help suggest treatment options. Someone who seeks treatment for opioid addiction must commit to stopping.
Opioid addiction is a complex disease affecting many aspects of a person’s life, including:
To be successful, treatment plans must address all of these components. In some cases, hospitalization may be required.
Detoxification is often the first attempt at treatment. It’s done in combination with other treatment options. This involves 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:
Some opioid addicts have success taking medically supervised prescription opioids, such as methadone or buprenorphine. This helps people lower the dose and 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.
Residential treatment programs work to deal with all facets of an addiction. These programs often include:
Programs can last for a few weeks or several months.
Other solutions that can help people overcome addiction include:
These methods can be helpful for some, although the safety and efficacy of each is mostly unknown.
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 the effects. Higher doses increase your risk of death or grave health consequences.
The good news is that plenty of people have overcome opioid addiction. There are many resources available to help, so see your doctor if you want to quit.
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on: May 18, 2017: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP
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