Short and Long-Term Effects of Opioid Abuse And Addiction

An addiction to heroin and/or prescription opioids can have devastating short and long-term consequences. The risk of overdose and/or death is always the greatest concern when someone is abusing opioids. Finding the right treatment program is key to recovering from an opioid addiction.

Effects Of Opioid Abuse

Short and Long-Term Effects of Opioid Abuse

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Opioid-related overdose deaths now outnumber overdose deaths involving all illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine combined and emergency department visits, substance treatment admissions and economic costs associated with opioid abuse have all increased in recent years.”

Opioids alter the brain and nervous system by attaching to pain receptors, producing feelings of euphoria. Most prescription opioids are Schedule II controlled substances, and have a high risk of dependency. Opioid addiction can include physical and psychological dependency. Opioid pain medications are not intended for long-term use; prolonged use increases the addictive potential and withdrawal symptoms may occur if the user attempts to stop.

Unfortunately, it’s common for users to mix prescription opioids with alcohol or other illicit drugs. Eventually, if the opioid is taken away, the user experiences unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and may continue using to avoid the painful consequences. It becomes too difficult to stop the opioid use and the cycle continues.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an average of 1.9 million Americans met criteria for prescription painkiller use disorder based on their use of prescription opioids in 2016. The Center for Disease Control reports more deaths involving synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, since 2013. Additionally, opioid overdoses in rural areas are 50 % higher than urban areas due to lower socio-economic standards and lack of access to health care.

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How Are Opioids Abused?

Opioid drugs come in various forms from pills to patches to injectible forms like heroin. Users may take them orlly (by mouth) or crush the pills for snorting or injecting. Morphine and fentanyl patches are used to treat severe pain, generally after a surgical procedure of for an illness such as cancer.

The primary methods of opioid abuse include:

  • Oral use (by mouth).
  • Snorted (through the nose).
  • Smoked (through the mouth).
  • Injected (into the bloodstream).
  • Subcutaneous (through the skin).

What Are the Different Types of Opioids?

Opioids come in legal and illegal forms. Opioid drugs require a prescritption, however, they are commonly bought and sold illegally on the street. The street-forms can be potent and unregulated distribution of these drugs may account for the rapid rise in opioid overdoses and deaths.

There are three main types of opioids: Natural opiates- alkaloids, nitrogen-containing base chemical compounds that occur in plants such as the opium poppy. They include:

  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Thebaine

The following is a list of Semi-synthetic/manmade opioids:

  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin).
  • Oxycodone (the prescription drug OxyContin).
  • Heroin (made from morphine).
  • Fully synthetic/manmade opioids- purely manmade.
  • Fentanyl
  • Pethidine
  • Levorphanol
  • Methadone
  • Tramadol
  • Dextropropoxyphene

Short-term Effects of Opioid Abuse

People are often prescribed opioid drugs after an injury or for chronic pain. The prescription medication is intended for short-term use because of the high addictive nature of opioids. If you need opioids for pain, work with your doctor to take the lowest dose possible, for the shortest time needed, exactly as prescribed.
Despite how long opioids are taken, users may experience certain symptoms while taking the opioids or when trying to stop taking them.

Short-term effects of opioids abuse may include:

  • Pain relief
  • Euphoria
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Itching
  • Chills
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Slowing of breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dependence
  • Tolerance
  • Death

Long-Term Effects of Opioid Abuse

Repeated intake of opioid drugs may result in dependence and prolonged use leads to chronic changes in the brain that constitute a full-fledged addiction. One way this occurs is when neurons in the brain’s reward pathways are altered by the exogenous opiates (prescription pills). This lowers the brain’s natural release of dopamine during normal, pleasurable activities when the opioids are not taken. Basically, the opioid user has cannot experience pleasure without the drugs, and the viscous cycle of addiction takes over. If the user attempts to stop taking the opioid medication, withdrawal may occur.

Opioid-withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle aches or twitiching
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • A runny nose
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Hot/cold flashes
  • Yawning
  • Shaking
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Overdose
  • Death

Because cravings can be so intense, users may repeatedly relapse. Tolerance decreases while a person is detoxing from opioids. Opioid overdose is life-threatening and may result in death.

What Are the Risks of Opioid Addiction?

Certain factors–genetic, environmental, psychological and physical–all play a role in the likelihood of beoming addicted to opioid medications. Also, women tend to have a higher predisposition for opioid addiction than men.

Known risk factors for opioid addiction include:

  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Young age
  • History of criminal activity or legal problems including DUIs
  • Regular contact with high-risk people or high-risk environments
  • Problems with past employers, family members and friends (mental disorder)
  • Risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior
  • Heavy tobacco use
  • History of severe depression or anxiety
  • Stressful circumstances
  • Prior drug or alcohol rehabilitation

Prescription opioids are highly addictive; in 2014, a total of 10.3 million persons reported using prescription opioids recreationally. Opioids are most addictive when you take them in ways other than what was prescribed, such as crushing a pill to be snorted or injected. This life-threatening method of intake is even more dangerous if the pill is a long- or extended-acting formulation. Rapidly delivering all the medicine to your body can cause an accidental overdose. Taking more than the prescribed dose of opioid medication, or more frequently than prescribed, also increases the risk of addiction.

Physical And Mental Signs And Symptoms Of Opioid Addiction

Physical signs and symptoms of opioid addiction include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea

Mental and emotional signs and symptoms of opioid addiction include:

  • Negative consequences in a person’s life and health
  • Lack of interest in social activities
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Preoccupation with taking the drug
  • Financial hardship and stress

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What Treatments Are Available for Opioid Addiction?

Prescription opioids are highly addictive but options for treatment are available. Finding assistance to help you detox from opioid drugs is a safest route to take. Social service agencies, health centers, helplines, and counseling services are good resources to explore. Community support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), are free and readily available. Many other treatments are available, including non-pharmacological therapies.

The first step in recovery from opioid addiction is detox, followed by more long-term inpatient or outpatient treatment. Inpatient and outpatient rehab centers may provide detox services, if considering more formal treatment.

Get Help for Opioid Addiction Today

Short-term and long-term opioid use can potentially lead to serious health problems, even death. If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid addiction, our support team is here to help provide you with treatment resources. Recovery is possible.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2016) - Opioids: The Prescription Drug & Heroin Overdose Epidemic

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016) - Opioids

National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teachers. (2017) - How Does Someone Become Addicted to Opioids?

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