Opioids are a class of drugs that act as painkillers. They can treat various forms of moderate-to-severe pain, including chronic pain, cancer pain, and pain after surgery.
Although they have a valid medical use, opioids pose a high risk of addiction. Opioid addiction, also called opioid use disorder or opiate addiction, is a serious illness. To recover, most people need professional treatment.
How Opioids Work
Opioid drugs provide pain relief by activating opioid receptors, which are located throughout the body. They also cause relaxation and euphoria (intense happiness) by increasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) associated with pleasure.
If you use opioids for a long time or abuse them, your body may start relying on the drugs to feel relaxed and happy. At this point, you’d likely be diagnosed with opioid addiction.
Types Of Opioids
There are three types of opioids: opiates, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids.
Opiates are naturally occurring opioids that come from the opium poppy plant. Popular opiates include morphine, which is the oldest opioid, and codeine, which acts as a cough suppressant and appears in numerous cough syrups.
Semi-synthetic opioids are synthesized from opiates in laboratories. Examples include:
- hydrocodone, which is sold under the brand names Hysingla ER and Zohydro ER
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid and Exalgo)
- oxycodone (Oxycontin, Oxyado, and Percocet)
- oxymorphone (Opana)
Another semi-synthetic opioid is heroin. Unlike other opioids, heroin is an illegal drug. Some people start using it when they’ve become addicted to prescription opioids but can no longer get refills.
Like semi-synthetic opioids, synthetic opioids are made in laboratories. However, they have no natural elements. Examples include:
- meperidine (Demerol)
- tramadol (Ultram, Conzip, and Qdolo)
- fentanyl (Duragesic, Abstral, Actiq, Fentora, and Subsys), which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and linked to for numerous overdose deaths
- carfentanil, which is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and intended only as a tranquilizer for large animals
What Is Opioid Abuse?
Opioid abuse occurs when you use an opioid in a manner not prescribed by a doctor, usually to feel relaxed and euphoric. You might use the drug more frequently than prescribed, use higher doses than prescribed, snort or inject it, or mix it with other drugs.
For example, some people mix codeine cough syrup with soda and hard candy. This mixture is often called “lean,” “purple drank,” or “sizzurp.”
Opioid abuse can lead to other types of drug abuse. For instance, when people who drink lean crave a stronger high, they may swap the codeine cough syrup for cough syrup that contains dextromethorphan (DXM). This is called “robotripping.” When abused, DXM can cause hallucinations.
Signs Of Opioid Abuse & Addiction
If you’re abusing or addicted to opioid medications, you may:
- experience strong opioid cravings
- experience constipation, trouble urinating, or flu-like symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, and drowsiness)
- avoid friends and family members to spend more time getting and using opioids
- fall behind at work or school
- appear moody, irritable, or paranoid
- lose interest in activities once enjoyed
- visit multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions of opioids (“doctor shopping”)
- neglect personal hygiene
- feel unable to experience pleasure without opioids
- feel unable to stop using opioids despite wanting to
- develop tolerance, which means you need increasingly higher and more frequent doses of opioids to feel the desired effects
- develop physical dependence, which means you experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t use opioids
People who misuse opioids face a high risk of overdose. That’s because opioids slow down your central nervous system, which can hinder your breathing and other important functions.
You’re more likely to overdose if you mix opioids with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines.
When left untreated, an opioid overdose can lead to brain damage or death. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 50,000 Americans died from opioid-related drug overdoses in 2019.
Common signs of opioid overdose include:
- nausea and/or vomiting
- choking or gurgling sounds
- limp body
- smaller pupils
- pale, clammy skin
- bluish fingernails and/or lips
- slowed or stopped breathing
- slowed or stopped heartbeat
- loss of consciousness
If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, immediately contact your local emergency department. In most cases, the person who overdosed will be given naloxone (brand name Narcan). This medication can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Consider keeping naloxone on hand if you or someone you know uses opioids. You can then administer the drug yourself while you wait for professional help.
If you’re physically dependent on opioids and you stop taking them, you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:
- aching muscles
- trouble sleeping
- enlarged pupils
- stomach cramps
- nausea and/or vomiting
While these symptoms cause discomfort, they’re usually not life-threatening. Still, to stay safe, you should talk to your doctor before you try to quit an opioid. They can help you gradually stop using the drug, which is called “tapering.” This strategy can make the withdrawal process easier.
Opioid Withdrawal In Infants
If you use opioids while pregnant, your baby may experience withdrawal symptoms such as:
- excessive or high-pitched crying
- trouble feeding and/or sleeping
- stuffy nose and/or sneezing
- slow weight gain
If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your baby’s doctor right away.
Opioid Addiction Treatment Options
It’s not easy or safe to try quitting opioids on your own. Instead, seek help at a substance abuse treatment center. There, a team of healthcare providers can design a personalized treatment plan to meet your needs.
Most people with opioid addictions require medical detox followed by medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
During detox, your doctors will help you slowly and safely get opioids out of your system.
During MAT, your doctors will use prescription drugs to support your opioid addiction recovery. These drugs may include:
- methadone or buprenorphine, which can decrease opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms
- naltrexone, which can discourage opioid use by blocking the drug’s pleasant effects
- Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naltrexone
MAT also includes other services to support your recovery, such as:
- therapy, where you can learn to manage cravings and develop healthy coping skills
- support groups, where you can connect with other people recovering from substance use disorders
- psychiatry, where doctors can use medications to help treat any mental health issues that contribute to your opioid misuse
- wellness activities like journaling, exercise, and meditation
To learn more about treatment options for opioid addiction, please reach out to a Recovering Champions specialist today.