If there is one word that the American public had to learn the meaning of this past decade, it was “opioids.” This three-syllable word was a stranger to most of us until the opioid epidemic took hold of our nation. We could no longer remain ignorant about what these drugs called opioids were, and the danger they presented.
After losing about 450,000 lives to opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2019, there is now much greater awareness about the dangers of these drugs. Whether they are natural, semi-synthetic, or synthetic, in any form, opioids are highly addictive substances. Continue reading to learn more about opioids and the inherent dangers these substances pose to health.
What are Opioids?
Opioids are drugs that are derived from the opium poppy. These substances may have a natural composition (such as opium, morphine, and codeine), a synthetic composition (such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, fentanyl, and meperidine), or a semi-synthetic composition as with heroin.
Prescription opioids are intended to help patients recovering from surgeries or injuries, because they are extremely effective at relieving pain. Synthetic opioids mimic the effects of natural opiates, and now, the terms are often used interchangeably. Drugs classified as opioids include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan)
- Tramadol (Ultram)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
Because of their slightly euphoric effect and sedative properties, coupled with the highly addictive qualities of these substances, opioids are often abused recreationally. However, in very many cases, an individual can become addicted to the medication through no fault of their own.
Consequences of Opioids
Opioids bind to the body’s natural opioid receptors, stimulating them and confusing the brain as it becomes flooded with dopamine. Over time, the brain will become dependent on the opioid, and stop naturally producing its own dopamine.
Prescription opioids are generally not safe to take on a long-term basis. With continued use, the body will begin to develop an increased tolerance to the medication, thus requiring more of it to achieve the desired effect. As the frequency of dosing increases, physical dependence and addiction can result.
At that point, when the person attempts to stop taking the drug, within hours, the body will respond with highly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. To avoid this pain and discomfort, the individual will continue using the drug.
Signs of Opioid Addiction
The signs of opioid or painkiller addiction include both behavioral signs and physical symptoms. The behavioral signs of opioid addiction might include:
- Obsession about the next dose
- Obsession about obtaining the drug
- Lying about the amount of the drug use
- Avoiding engaging in activities once enjoyed
- Becoming isolated, avoiding friends and family members
- ● Exhibiting secretive behaviors
- Continued opioid use despite mounting negative consequences
Physical signs of opioid addiction might include:
- Inability to stop or limit the opioid use
- Increased tolerance, causing more frequent dosing
- Powerful drug cravings
- Chronic constipation
- Slurred speech
- Frequent sweating
- Small, pinpoint pupils
- Reduced sex drive
- Shallow breathing
- Withdrawal symptoms
Someone who experiences the discomforts of the withdrawal symptoms is likely to obtain more of the medication to avoid feeling sick, thus perpetuating the addiction cycle.
Dangers of Fentanyl
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid manufactured under the brand names Subsys, Duragesic, and Abstral. Fentanyl has a legitimate medical use for controlling pain in patients with serious illnesses, such as cancer. The compound that makes up fentanyl is easy to reproduce, and has become widely distributed on the street or online.
Fentanyl is so potent that law enforcement and first responders avoid contact with the substance, because just a few granules can have fatal respiratory effects. Fentanyl is said to be 50-100 times more powerful than morphine, and 50 times more powerful than heroin. Many of the overdose deaths have occurred in individuals who had no idea that they were ingesting fentanyl. The unknown presence of fentanyl, not only in heroin but also in counterfeit versions of prescription opioids, has led to the sharp increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in recent years.
While in the grip of an opioid addiction, it may feel like there is an invisible rope pulling you relentlessly toward the next dose and completely overriding your will—even when you want to break free from the opioids. Fortunately, there is hope.
Decoupling the brain’s dependence on the drug takes time. It requires patience and a firm commitment, as well as participation in Medication Supported Recovery programs. But, with a positive attitude and an effective treatment program to help launch your recovery, a life filled with hope and a promising future are possible.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellnessprograms and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.