Opioid Addiction

Opioids are primarily used to treat pain. These drugs are highly addictive to susceptible people. Continued use of opioids can cause users to become dependent on the drugs. Withdrawal symptoms for opioid addiction are uncomfortable, but not usually life-threatening.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Opioids are derived from the poppy plant. They are used primarily to treat pain.

Common opioids (in increasing order of strength) include:

  • Codeine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Fentanyl

Opioid addiction is a major drug problem in the U.S. today. It is the biggest drug problem, aside from alcoholism, among adults.

Opioid addiction often starts with using the drugs for chronic pain. Continued use can lead to addictions to stronger drugs. For example, some opioid users will also become addicted to heroin because it is cheaper and provides a stronger high.

Using opioids does more than relieve pain. They produce a sense of euphoria or wellbeing that can be highly addictive to susceptible people.

While opioids are used clinically for pain control, many people become tolerant to therapeutic doses of the drugs. This causes users to increase their dosages of the substance to get the same effect.

Some people become psychologically and physiologically dependent on opioids. They will engage in drug-seeking behaviors to get more of the drugs to perpetuate their addiction.

An opioid addiction can be identified by a number of things.

  • If you have increased your use of opioids over time because of increased tolerance
  • If you have withdrawal symptoms when stopping the drug
  • If you use more of the drug than is prescribed
  • If you have become focused on the use of the drug
  • If you have had negative life events happen because of the use of the drug
  • If you have had multiple failed attempts at stopping the drug on your own

One of the biggest problems with opioid drugs is that there is a high risk of tolerance. This means that the same amount of the drug will no longer have the same effect on you as it once did. You will need to take more of the drug to feel the same way that was once achieved by a lower dose, increasing the likelihood of overdose.

Those at high risk of opioid overdose may take too much of the drug by accident or because of a need to get a greater high from taking more.

An opioid overdose may lead to respiratory depression and cardiac depression. Overdoses can be helped by giving IV, SC or intranasal naloxone. This can reverse the effect of the opioid drug on the cardiorespiratory system.

Opioid vs Opiate vs Narcotic

What is the difference between an opioid, an opiate and a narcotic?

The term narcotic is an older term used to identify any drug that will induce sleep and alter the mind. Opiates refer to any drug that is directly derived from opium. Examples include drugs like heroin, morphine and codeine. Opioids refer to synthetic opiates, or opiates that do not occur naturally. Examples include oxycodone and fentanyl.

Nowadays, both opiates and opioids are referred to as “opioid drugs.”

Opioid Withdrawal

Opioid withdrawal is generally very uncomfortable, but not usually life-threatening.

Early withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Nasal congestion
  • Muscle pains
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

Later symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Dilated pupils
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The onset of withdrawal symptoms depends on the opioid used. For example, withdrawal symptoms start about twelve hours after the most recent heroin use and about 30 hours after the most recent methadone use.

Withdrawal can be life-threatening if you are withdrawing from opioids in addition to other drugs, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines.

There are two stages of acute withdrawal. Acute withdrawal can start about twelve hours after the last use of opioids. It reaches a peak at 3-5 days after stopping the drug and can persist for 1-2 weeks. The acute stage is more uncomfortable, but doesn’t usually last more than a month.

The post-acute withdrawal phase can last from months to years. You can have symptoms of poor concentration, unstable sleep patterns, variable energy, anxiety, decreased enthusiasm and frequent mood swings.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

A fast recovery from an opioid overdose involves giving IV, SC or intranasal naloxone. It will quickly reverse the adverse effect of an opioid drug by binding to and blocking the opioid receptors in the brain and body. It can quickly awaken a person who is comatose from an opioid drug.

Recovery from opioids involves the use of medications and drug rehabilitation techniques. You can easily do both types of treatments on an outpatient or inpatient basis. After going through a more extensive treatment program, you can start attending Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or even Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Opioid Addiction Medication

Those battling opioid addiction have a chance at a successful recovery with effective medications, such as Suboxone and methadone.

Suboxone is a combination drug containing buprenorphine (a partial agonist opioid drug) and naloxone (an opioid antagonist). It is a popular medication among addiction specialists because the buprenorphine does not provide a greater high when taking greater amounts of the drug.

Suboxone is taken sublingually, or under the tongue. It does not require going to a special clinic and can be used in the comfort of one’s home.

Methadone is another drug used for opioid addiction, but it can be addictive if misused. Using methadone to treat opioid addiction typically requires going to a special clinic.

Celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh, Elvis Presley and Matthew Perry have recovered from opioid addiction.

Author:Kent Hoffman
Kent Hoffman

Dr. Kent Hoffman has been practicing medicine for nearly 30 years. He is board-certified to practice addiction medicine and family medicine. Dr. Hoffman gets to know his patients on a first-name basis to provide compassionate and professional health care.

Last modified: 01/14/2019

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