Opioids are a class of sedative drugs capable of relieving major pain. These drugs are also highly addictive, yet are commonly prescribed across the United States for acute or chronic pain conditions.

Opioids work by acting on opioid receptors in the body that control pain sensation, as well as the brain chemical dopamine.

By triggering a release of dopamine, opioids can cause a powerful sensation of relaxation and pleasure (euphoria), as well as a strong urge to continue using the drug. Many opioids are available by prescription, or through illegal purchase from a drug dealer.

The most common opioids of abuse include:

  • fentanyl (Actiq, Abstral)
  • heroin
  • oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • codeine
  • tramadol (ConZip)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • oxymorphone (Opana)
  • morphine

Abusing these drugs can lead to dependence and addiction, as well as an increased risk for accidental overdose.

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If you or someone you know is taking opioids or suspected of opioid misuse, it is important to know the dangers of these drugs as well as signs of addiction and overdose.

Opioid abuse and addiction is treatable. Learn more about opioid abuse, addiction, and treatment options by continuing to read below.

What Do Opioids Look Like?

Opioids are prescribed and manufactured in a variety of forms, depending on the type of opioid, its intended use, and the setting in which it is administered.

Depending on the type of opioid, common forms include:

  • pills
  • tablets
  • lozenges
  • patches
  • liquid solutions
  • suppositories

Opioids like fentanyl, or the illegal opiate heroin, that are manufactured for illicit use may also come in the form of a white or brown powder, drops on blotter paper, or nasal sprays.

How Are Opioids Abused?

The primary definition of opioid abuse is taking an opioid in any way other than prescribed by a doctor. This can include taking higher doses, taking more frequent doses, or taking opioids to get high.

People who abuse opioids may also crush and snort pills, smoke, or inject liquid forms to experience a more intense high in less time. Taking opioids through these routes can lead to faster effects, but also increases the risk of accidental overdose and other health consequences.

Opioid misuse and addiction is not a problem that’s restricted to those who seek the drug illegally. Many people who misuse opioids receive a prescription, but eventually become addicted to the effects of the drugs or develop severe dependence on them.

Who Is At Risk For Opioid Abuse?

Populations that appear to be at greater risk for opioid abuse and overdose include:

  • young adults between the ages of 18-34
  • elderly patients
  • people living in rural areas
  • people with a past history of substance abuse
  • white men
  • pregnant women
  • people within the criminal justice system

Side Effects And Symptoms Of Opioid Abuse

In addition to blocking pain signals within the body, opioids are associated with a number of other side effects. These can be even more enhanced among people who abuse opioids by taking them frequently or in high doses.

Side effects and symptoms of opioid abuse may include:

  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • tiny pupils
  • slow breathing
  • hostility
  • slurred speech
  • poor concentration
  • flushed skin
  • constipation

Side effects may vary depending on the type of opioid used and how it was used – i.e. taken by mouth, injected, snorted, or smoked.

One of the primary differences between the different types of opioids is their potency. Fentanyl, for instance, can be anywhere between 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and heroin, making it more dangerous in small doses.

Misuse of opioids can lead to increased tolerance in the body, making a person require higher doses to experience the desired effects.

This can cause opioid dependence in a short amount of time, leading to withdrawal symptoms and stronger cravings for the drug in-between doses.

Signs Of Opioid Abuse And Addiction

Abusing opioids can cause changes in how a person thinks, feels, and behaves over time. It is often the people closest to a person, such as friends or family members, who first notice signs of opioid misuse.

Signs of opioid abuse may include:

  • running out of prescriptions too quickly
  • unusual drowsiness throughout the day
  • going to multiple doctors to get more prescriptions
  • taking opioids from a family member or roommate’s prescription
  • avoiding loved ones or making excuses not to go to social events and gatherings
  • neglecting personal and professional responsibilities
  • continuing to use opioids despite negative effects on mental or physical health
  • being unable to reduce or stop drug use

Opioid Overdose: Signs And Symptoms

Overdose refers to a reaction in the body that occurs when someone has taken too much of one or more drugs. This can lead to both physical and psychological symptoms and pose life-threatening consequences without emergency medical assistance.

In the United States, tens of thousands of fatal opioid overdoses occur each year. Compared to previous decades, many overdoses in recent years involve synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Taking opioids with other substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other depressants can increase the risk for overdose and may cause a person to stop breathing.

If someone you know is showing these signs of opioid overdose, call 9-1-1 right away:

  • slowed or stopped breathing
  • having difficulty breathing
  • inability to speak
  • having trouble staying awake
  • blue or purple fingernails and lips
  • cold and clammy skin
  • vomiting or gurgling noises
  • weak pulse
  • pale face
  • loss of consciousness

Opioid overdose is treatable with swift intervention. Narcan (naloxone) is the most effective drug currently used to reverse opioid overdose. This is offered in some pharmacies across the country at low or no cost for overdose prevention and treatment.

If you have called 9-1-1, telling emergency responders that a loved one has overdosed on opioids can also let them know they will need to administer naloxone when they arrive on scene.

Additional Dangers Of Opioid Abuse

Although overdose is the primary concern surrounding opioid abuse, there are also several other short- and long-term risks linked to opioid misuse.

Risks and dangers of opioid misuse include:

  • complications during pregnancy
  • increased risk for heroin use
  • exacerbated symptoms in people with mental health problems
  • increased risk for suffering falls or injuries
  • infections (for people who inject opioids)
  • lung complications
  • suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • liver damage
  • cognitive issues

Older adults can be especially sensitive to the harmful effects of opioid misuse due to differences in how their bodies metabolize drugs. This can increase the risk for overdose and worsen symptoms of other age-related conditions.

Opioid Withdrawal And Detox

Finding the most effective treatment approaches for opioid abuse and addiction has become a priority in the wake of the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States.

The first step towards recovering from opioid addiction is to undergo detox, a process that eliminates opioids from a person’s body. This can trigger a number of physical and psychological symptoms collectively referred to as symptoms of withdrawal.

Opioid withdrawal is a process that can last between one to three weeks, depending on the opioid of abuse and other factors.

This can be a highly uncomfortable experience, similar to having a bad case of the flu. In severe cases, withdrawal can become dangerous without professional support.

Early symptoms of opioid withdrawal:

  • anxiety
  • muscle aches
  • eyes tearing up
  • runny nose
  • sweating
  • insomnia
  • restlessness

Late symptoms of withdrawal:

  • diarrhea
  • cold flashes
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • dilated pupils
  • goosebumps

In general, opioid withdrawal is not considered dangerous as long as people have access to some form of support. The greatest danger to look out for is dehydration, which can become severe following excessive diarrhea and vomiting.

It is not recommended that any person with opioid dependence attempt to detox at home. The safest and most beneficial setting for undergoing detox is within an inpatient setting, such as a drug rehab center, for medical detox.

Medical Detoxification

Medical detox refers to an inpatient detox service for people who have developed a dependence on drugs or alcohol. This is commonly offered within addiction treatment centers for people who need to detox before beginning a rehabilitation program.

Benefits of medical detox include:

  • 24/7 supervision
  • clean and secure environment
  • monitoring for medical complications during withdrawal
  • reduced risk for relapse during withdrawal
  • use of medications to relieve uncomfortable symptoms

Detox is only the first step in recovery from opioid abuse and dependence. It is common for people to experience opioid cravings, depression, and other symptoms following the initial withdrawal process. This can be difficult to manage alone.

For this reason, additional treatment within an opioid treatment program following detox is highly recommended.

Treatment For Opioid Abuse And Addiction

The most effective treatment for overcoming opioid abuse and addiction is a structured course of treatment that involves behavioral therapy and medications.

The ideal setting for someone recovering from opioid abuse is an inpatient rehab center. This can offer 24-hour supervision and support, with access to a team of medical and behavioral specialists.

The types of treatment used within an opioid rehab program typically include:

  • medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • individual therapy sessions
  • support groups
  • skill-learning groups
  • aftercare coordination

At Vertava Health Massachusetts, our Massachusetts treatment program for opioid abuse offers an integrated approach to recovery, utilizing both traditional and holistic treatments for full mind-and-body wellness.

Through our comprehensive treatment program, patients have the opportunity to learn healthy coping tools and get the support they need to build a strong foundation for a balanced future in recovery.

Recovery is possible. Contact one of our treatment specialists at Vertava Health Massachusetts today to learn more about our opioid abuse and addiction treatment program.