The United States continues to be in the grip of an opioid crisis. More than two million people are addicted to opioids right now. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose. The opioid crisis costs the U.S.$78.5 billion a year. That figure includes the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and legal expenses. Opioid use and abuse have serious and life-threatening consequences. We’ll explore both the short and long term effects of opioids, along with the warning signs of abuse and treatment options.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are narcotic painkillers. They’re called opioids because they’re derived from chemicals found in the sap of the opium poppy. Some prescription opioids are made from the plant. Others are developed in labs using the same chemical structure.
Opioids are highly effective in treating pain, which is why more than 60 million people have had at least one prescription for opioids filled or refilled.
Opioids are intended to treat both short and long-term pain. A patient might be prescribed an opiate after surgery or to manage the pain associated with cancer and its treatment.
Common prescription opioids include:
Heroin in also an opioid. Some opioids, including fentanyl, can be deadly in very tiny doses. Moreover, heroin is frequently contaminated with fentanyl and can cause a fatal overdose in minutes.
How Do You Take Opioids?
There are several ways to take opioids. Not all patients can swallow a pill, so the delivery method depends on the patient’s unique condition.
Common ways to take opioids include:
- Nasal spray
- Skin patch
- Tablet dissolved under the tongue
- Implanted pump
Some patients may receive opioid injections that are delivered by a doctor or nurse in a medical setting.
How Do Opioids Work?
Opioids bind to receptors on cells located in the brain, spinal cord and other organs in the body. When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body. They also release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body.
Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. It contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. That’s why we feel wonderful after we eat a great dinner. Our body is flooded with dopamine.
We can also experience that dopamine “high” when we fall in love or participate in an activity we enjoy. Dopamine helps us feel good, so we want to repeat the experience that caused us to feel that way.
That’s a good thing when it comes to enjoying a beautiful experience, but it can be deadly when we get that dopamine rush from drugs like opioids. These drugs trigger the release of dopamine in excess amounts, far beyond what is needed to provide pleasure.
Short Term Effects of Opioids
Patients who take opioids feel the effects almost immediately. This is especially true in patients who have rarely or never taken the drug before.
Common short-term effects of opioids can include:
- Respiratory depression
These side-effects are the reason why someone who takes a narcotic painkiller is advised not to drive or participate in an activity that requires even a moderate amount of physical or mental effort.
Opioids can make the user feel very relaxed, which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. Someone who abuses a narcotic painkiller is taking it for that feeling and not necessarily for pain management.
Someone who abuses opioids takes the drug in a manner that isn’t prescribed by a doctor. They may take too much of the drug. They may take it well beyond the time frame when it’s truly needed.
The most common way someone becomes dependent on or addicted to opioids is after he or she takes it for a legitimate reason. He may have been given Oxycodone after surgery, for example. An athlete may receive a prescription for the drug to manage the pain associated with an injury.
Opioids are highly addictive. In fact, it only takes five days of use to develop a codependency on them. About 1.7 million people in the United States suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.
Many of them are chasing that dopamine rush, that feeling of relaxation that comes with the consumption of an opioid. Chronic use of opioids impairs the brain’s ability to produce dopamine on its own.
Opioids can actually destroy neurotransmitters in the brain that sense when the body is experiencing pleasure. When that happens, the brain can’t perceive pleasure without the drug. That’s one way someone becomes addicted to the drug. Their body can’t produce the dopamine without it.
Long Term Effects of Opioids
Continued use or abuse of opioids can result in physical dependence and addiction. The long term effects of opioids are frightening and life-threatening.
When someone abuses a drug like an opioid, they need more and more of the drug to achieve the same feeling. This is often referred to as “tolerance”. Yet, stronger doses of the drug can have serious side effects.
Those can include:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Abdominal distention and bloating.
- A suppressed immune system
- Liver damage
- Brain damage
Opioids depress the central nervous system which regulates functions like breathing and heart rate. High doses can dangerously slow or stop a person’s breathing. This is called hypoxia, and it can cut off blood flow to the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage or death.
Long term use of opioids can affect motor skills and lead to an increased risk of falls and injuries. People who abuse opioids also have a 38 percent higher risk of developing serious depression.
Some people who abuse opioids inject the drug, because they experience a quicker, more intense high. This is seen most frequently in heroin use. There are a number of dangerous, long term side effects of injecting opioids illegally (not administered in a medically-supervised setting)..
Long-term side effects of intravenous opioids include:
- Heart Problems
- Heart Infections
- Blood infections
- Skin infections like gangrene
Many of these infections and diseases are caused by using dirty needles. Intravenous heroin users have a much higher rate of HIV and other blood borne illnesses than people who do not inject the drugs. Anxiety, depression and cravings can continue for months, even years, after someone stops using.
Signs of Opioid Addiction
It’s important to know the signs of addiction, especially if you suspect someone you know is abusing opioids. Addiction to painkillers can be fatal. It’s never easy to talk to a loved one about possible drug abuse, but having the resources needed to make an informed decision crucial.
A person who is addicted to opioids may try to hide their problem and deny it. There are physical and behavioral warning signs that help uncover the truth.
These can include:
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in appearance
- Unusual sleepiness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Scratching or picking at the skin
- Droopy eyes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
The person you’re concerned about may suddenly have no money. Job loss is a common byproduct of drug use. Financial ruin can occur as all available monies will be dedicated to funding the drug habit. When those personal resources run thin, other tactics will be utilized to obtain the drugs, such as stealing from loved ones, as well as strangers, or sell or trade someone’s else’s belongings for drugs.
At some point, the opioid abuser may decide the long term effects of addiction are too much. Attempts may be made to quit in private without anyone knowing. Not only is this not recommended but can initiate a host of withdrawal symptoms that can pose severe health risks.
Withdrawal symptoms from opioids can include:
- Muscle and bone pain
- Sleep problems
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Cold flashes with goosebumps
- Uncontrollable leg movements
- Severe cravings
Some people in withdrawal may also experience hallucinations and tremors.
Treatment for Opioid Abuse and Addiction
Few opioid abusers can manage the effects of withdrawal alone. In fact, some of the symptoms can be life-threatening. Medical detox can help reduce these symptoms safely, in an environment where your loved one is closely monitored.
Part of the addiction treatment process includes an initial health assessment to reveal underlying physical and emotional issues that need to be addressed. This is an important part of the recovery plan as some people abuse prescription painkillers to deal with the symptoms of an existing mental health disorder. About half the people who have a severe mental illness also abuse drugs like opioids.
With opioid abuse, the risk for accidental overdose is heightened. Recognizing the signs of an overdose can be life-saving. If you witness breathing problems, clammy skin, blue skin, or unconsciousness.in someone else, don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1.
The opioid addiction recovery process, for you or your loved one, starts with a confidential and compassionate conversation.