Causes & Effects of Opioids Addiction

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Learn About Opioid Addiction & Abuse

Named for their relationship to the opium poppy plant, opioids are a class of substances that are used both medically and recreationally. In medical settings, prescription opioids act as powerful painkillers, able to bring relief from even the most severe pain. Prescription opioids include medications such as morphine, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and OxyContin. Although prescription opioids tend to be relatively safe when used as prescribed, they are still opioids and thus the potential for addiction remains if they are used recreationally.

Opioids also appear outside of medical settings. Heroin is perhaps the most common example of an opioid drug that is not used medically, but is only used recreationally. Heroin is a dangerous substance that is extremely addictive and can be life-threatening if heroin abuse continues unchecked.

When they are ingested, all opioids produce feelings of pleasure and relaxation. In the case of illicit opioids such as heroin, this pleasure is powerful and euphoric and is responsible for the drug’s addictive quality. However, when prescription opioids are used recreationally, they also can produce powerful and addictive feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

Regardless of which opioid a person abuses, these are dangerous drugs and an addiction can be life-threatening. Because of the difficulty in overcoming the compulsion to use these drugs, as well as the severe consequences of withdrawal when one attempts to stop using them, it can feel almost impossible to overcome opioid abuse without professional help. For this reason, treatment should be sought.


Opioid Abuse Statistics

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5), slightly less than 0.4% of individuals over the age of 18 meet criteria for opioid use disorder in a given year. Rates of opioid abuse tend to be higher in males (0.49%) than in females (0.26%), and this discrepancy is even higher when looking at heroin as opposed to all opioids combined.

Causes & Risks

Causes and Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse

Although an individual’s risk of abusing opioids is affected by both genetic and environmental factors, the DSM-5 argues that genetic factors are foundational to determine an individual’s risk for opioid abuse.

Genetic: Although factors such as social environment and peer relationships can affect an individual’s risk of using opioids, these factors arise as a result of genetic personality differences, such as heightened impulsivity and novelty seeking behavior. In addition, if a person is born into a household with parents who abuse opioids, that individual will likely be at an increased risk of opioid abuse.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Being male
  • Being in one’s teens or early 20s

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Abuse

There are many signs and symptoms that may suggest a person is struggling with opioid abuse, such as:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Apathy
  • “Doctor shopping” or visiting multiple physicians in an attempt to secure multiple prescriptions for opioid drugs
  • Taking opioids in larger amounts or over a greater period of time than intended
  • Spending a great deal of time in efforts to obtain, use, or recover from use of opioids
  • Continuing to abuse opioids despite persistent negative physical or interpersonal consequences of use
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home due to opioid abuse
  • History of failed attempts to reduce opioid use
  • Abusing opioids despite use being physically hazardous

Physical symptoms:

  • Tolerance, or needing increasing amounts of opioids to achieve a high
  • Drowsiness
  • Withdrawal when ceasing use of opioids
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor attention
  • Cravings for opioids
  • Poor memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inattention to the environment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Euphoria
  • Depressed mood
  • Changes in relationships

Lasting Effects

Effects of Opioid Abuse

If left untreated, opioid abuse can have severe consequences for a person’s life, including:

  • Strain on personal relationships
  • Social isolation
  • Separation, divorce, or loss of child custody
  • Contracting HIV, hepatitis C, or other blood-borne illnesses from sharing used needles or risky sexual practices
  • Onset or worsening of mental health symptoms
  • Polysubstance use, addiction, or chemical dependency
  • Birth defects
  • Injury due to drug trafficking violence
  • Dry mouth and nose
  • Loss of visual acuity
  • Poor performance at work
  • Loss of job
  • Constipation
  • Death, either from overdose or suicide

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opioid Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders

Unfortunately, individuals who abuse opioids are also at risk of other mental health disorders. The most common of these include:

  • Other substance use disorders, especially involving tobacco, alcohol, stimulants, cannabis, and benzodiazepines
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Depressive disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of Opioid Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of opioid withdrawal: With continued use, a person’s body becomes accustomed to the presence of the opioid which he or she had been abusing. If that person then attempted to abstain from using the opioid, he or she would experience a number of painful and negative effects, including:

  • Dilated pupils
  • High fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Aches
  • Insomnia
  • Depressed mood
  • Excessive sweating
  • Goosebumps
  • Yawning
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose or watery eyes

Effects of opioid overdose: Opioid overdose is an ever-present danger of continued opioid abuse. An overdose occurs when a person ingests more of the drug than his or her body can safely handle. Effects of an opioid overdose can include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness
  • Severely constricted pupils
  • Confusion
  • Trouble breathing
  • Twitching or spasms
  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Coma
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After a work related injury, I was prescribed opioids to help deal with the pain. My addiction became worse. I admitted myself and doubled down on getting sober. Now, a year later, I am fully recovered and have not relapsed!

– Robert D.