Opioid Addiction Guide: Get the Facts & Work Toward Recovery
If you or someone you know is addicted to opioids, it is important to know that you are not alone. In fact, millions of American adults struggle with addiction to both prescription opioids and street drugs like heroin.
Opioid addiction is not all that uncommon. Prescriptions for opioid painkillers have risen astronomically over the past two decades, and thousands of families are paying for it.
Drug addiction and abuse are extremely dangerous, and opioid drugs in particular can be detrimental to a person's physical health, mental wellbeing, and even to their closest relationships.
Opioid Addiction Information
The Basis of This Guide: Opioid Addiction is Not Uncommon and it is Treatable.
Here's the thing: opioid addiction can be effectively treated. With the right therapy and determination, addiction and drug abuse do not have to be the things that defines you.
The key is to first get the facts about opioid addiction and treatment, and then work toward recovery.
This opioid addiction guide is here to help you through this process.
The process ranges from understanding why opioids are addictive in the first place to recognizing the many addiction treatment options available to you. We aim to answer all of the most frequently asked questions about opioid abuse and addiction.
Ultimately, we are here to help you. If you have more questions about opioid addiction and treatment after reading through this guide, do not hesitate to reach out and contact us today.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids (sometimes called opiates) are a class of drug that impact the entire central nervous system - including the brain. They are most commonly prescribed as painkillers and have a heavy impact on the brain. Another word for prescription opioids is narcotic.
The drug works on the brain's opioid receptors to do two things:
- Opioids block the brain's pain receptors, effectively working as painkillers.
- Opioids increase the dopamine levels in the brain, which has a euphoric effect.
It is this second effect that often causes people to abuse prescription narcotics. The original purpose is to treat pain. But the brain can easily become dependent on the other physical and psychological effects of the drug.
Becoming addicted to opioids is a very real possibility for anyone who uses prescription painkillers, particularly if they have a family history of substance abuse.
Opioid drugs - like morphine or oxycodone - are not new. They have been around for decades. But in recent years the prescription of heavy narcotics has become much more common. Different types of opioids are more or less common, but they all have a similar effect.
Despite the fact that they are prescribed left and right, the fact is prescription painkillers are still extremely addictive.
Because of this, you should be cautious when taking prescription opioids. Many people who struggle with heroin addiction began their downward spiral by abusing prescription painkillers.
The most common prescription opioids to be on the look out for include:
Of course, on top of these prescription drugs are the equally dangerous street drugs. These include heroin and some forms of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. These drugs should be avoided at all times, no matter the type of opioid.
Heroin is the most infamous of all the opiate drugs. Like non-synthetic prescription opioids, heroin is made from opium poppy plants.
Unlike prescription narcotics, heroin has no medical purpose. But it does have many of the same 'desirable' effects: it increases feelings of pleasure and raises the heart rate and breathing. The extreme effect on the brain is the 'high' that most people talk about.
Some of the 'street names' for heroin include: smack, hell dust, horse, and big H. Heroin can also be mixed with crack cocaine, a practice known as speedballing.
The other, somewhat new, dangerous opioid is synthetic. Defining synthetic opioids is simple. Instead of being plant-based, like most opioids, synthetic opioids are man-made. Synthetic heroin and prescription synthetic narcotics are designed to mimic the effects of naturally occurring opiates.
This also means that synthetic opioids are much more potent. Because they are much more potent, they are also much more deadly. Synthetic opioids - including heroin mixed with a synthetic fentanyl - account for thousands of drug overdose every year.
Heroin may be infamous, but prescription opioids are the real source of addiction for many people around the United States. This form of opioid is used as a pain reliever for acute pain - and sometimes chronic pain.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans first become addicted to prescription opioids - which shows just how addictive these legal drugs can be.
Research shows that many people who become 'hooked' on prescription opioids will move to using heroin as a cheaper and more readily available option.
Prescription painkillers are typically prescribed after a major surgery or injury. Prescriptions are usually used for a very short period of time, since doctors know that there is a risk of developing dependence on opiates.
But sometimes prescription opioids are used as a solution to chronic pain. When used over a long period of time, the risk of abusing opioids and even become addicted to opiates goes way up.
What is Drug Addiction & Abuse?
Millions of Americans struggle with substance use disorders every year. In some cases, this takes the form of addiction to painkillers or other prescription drugs. In other cases, a substance use disorder takes the form of being unable to stop drinking alcohol every night of the week.
With this range of reality for the individual, what can we actually consider to be drug addiction and abuse? There are a couple of major points to keep in mind here:
Substance addiction has a few hallmarks, including tolerance, dependence, and being unable to quit on your own.
A definition of substance abuse depends more on the substance. For prescription opioids, this is taking the drug outside of the parameters of the prescription. For illicit opioids, like heroin, abusing the substance is simply taking it in the first place.
Understanding Drug Addiction - Tolerance, Dependence, and Inability to Quit
As we mention above, there are several factors that come together to create the reality of addiction in and individual. Usually these reflect the stages of opioid addiction. The combination of the three is what makes addiction to opiates so dangerous.
Drug tolerance is the natural response that your body has to taking unnatural drugs. Think about your caffeine intake. Have you ever found that you slowly move from one cup of coffee in the morning to three? This is the development of drug tolerance.
When it comes to hard drugs, the effects are much more dangerous than that third cup of coffee.
When you first start to take an opioid drug, like heroin, the opiate essentially tricks the brain into receiving neurotransmitters. This is what produces the euphoria and pain-blocking effects of opioids.
But as you continue to take the drug, your brain becomes used to - or tolerant of - the effects. In time, the brain will tell you it needs more opiates to reach the same effects.
After developing drug tolerance, the next stage of addiction is for the brain to develop drug dependence.
Drug dependence is exactly what it sounds like: your body becoming physically dependent on the effects of an opiate or other drug. The dependence is caused by the chemical changes that opioids make on your brain. Opiates get your brain used to an unnatural amount of dopamine - the chemical in the brain that creates pleasure.
As your brain gets used to this higher level of dopamine, it will tell your body that it 'needs' the drug that increases dopamine. This is when your body starts to experience withdrawal symptoms. It is also a sign that addiction to opioids could be right around the corner.
The longer that you take a prescription opioid or use illicit opiates like heroin, the more likely your body will become dependent on the narcotic effects.
The major difference between drug tolerance and drug dependence is that one typically comes before the other.
Besides that, both dependence and tolerance are components of addiction. If any of these statements apply to you, you should seek out professional help immediately to avoid addiction:
- You find that you have to take more prescription opioids to get the same effects.
- You start withdrawing from the opiate drug after going 12 or more hours without the drug.
- You start seeking out other opiates to meet the 'need' of the drug.
Withdrawing from opioids, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms, does not necessarily mean that you are addicted. But it does mean that your body is physically dependent on drugs. If this is the case, you should immediately seek out professional help in getting off the opiates.
Note: You should never try to quit using opioids on your own. Withdrawing from opiates can be dangerous without medical attention. It is best to get professional help, and advice from your doctor if you are using prescription opioids.
These three factors of addiction working together is what makes opiates so dangers. As your body becomes more tolerant to the drug, you need to take more to get the same effects. As you take more, your body becomes dependent on the effects. As your body becomes dependent, you'll find that it becomes much harder to simply quit the drug on your own.
It's a vicious cycle that needs breaking.
Understanding the Difference Between Drug Abuse & Addiction
Abusing drugs - whether prescription pain relievers or street opiates - does not necessarily mean that you are addicted to them. But it is a dangerous road to be traveling.
That said, there are a few key differences between drug abuse and drug addiction.
Using prescription opioids outside of a prescription, or using illicit opiates recreationally.
Building tolerance to the drug, experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and being unable to stop using the opiate on your own.
When it comes to prescription drugs, drug abuse is essentially taking prescription opioids for longer or with higher doses than how they have been prescribed. In contrast, just using illicit opiates (like heroin or some synthetic opiates like fentanyl) is considered abuse.
Drug abuse is the start of a dangerous road. Drug addiction is the loss of control on that same road.
If you still aren't sure whether or not you are addicted, consider participating in our addiction assessment. This can help you get to the bottom of your drug use and get you the professional help that you need.
Remember: Drug Addiction is a Mental Disease
Without getting too scientific, addiction to opioids (and other drugs) disrupts the brain and makes it function differently.
Addiction changes the way the brain thinks of needs, desires and priorities. Addiction is identified by one hallmark factor: the loss of control. Once someone has become addicted to opioids, they have lost control over their choices and the way that they use drugs.
Thankfully, there are many professional resources and drug rehab programs to counteract this loss of control. If you think you may be addicted to opiates, it is important to reach out for help in overcoming addiction as a mental disease.
Drug Facts: Opioid Abuse & Addiction
Here's the headline: America is addicted to opioids. The drug has affected the health and social welfare of the entire country. With over 2 million people suffering from substance use disorders and close to half a million struggling with heroin addiction, the crisis is clear.
But opioid abuse and addiction is also a highly personal struggle. Outside of the opioid research, trends, and stats, the issue of addiction and abuse comes down the individual.
If you or someone you know is addicted to opioids, we want to help you understand what that means. If you aren't quite if your drug use is the same as addiction or abuse, we want to help you make an honest assessment.
To help you get started on this learning process, take time to learn the major signs of opioid abuse, the symptoms of opioid addiction, and what to expect during an opioid withdrawal.
It can sometimes be difficult to tell when someone is abusing opioids. People sometimes even have a hard time being able to tell if they are abusing opioids themselves. A good place to start is by taking an honest assessment of your drug use.
Take our addiction quiz to assess your opioid use and the major signs of opioid abuse.
If you aren't quite sure what to look for in opioid abuse, it is important to know that the signs of opioid abuse can be both psychological and social. The most common signs of opioid abuse include:
Psychological and Mental Signs of Opioid Abuse
- Increased anxiety, and sometimes anxiety attacks
- Experiencing euphoria from taking an opioid drug
- Acting excessively irritable, without cause
- Experiencing lethargy or a lack of motivation
- Depression, particularly during days when you do not take the drug
Behavioral and Social Signs of Opioid Abuse
- Using the prescription opioid in greater quantities or more often than is outlined in the prescription.
- Prescription 'shopping' - visiting multiple doctors and pharmacies to get more opiates.
- Spending a lot of time thinking about, using, or recovering from opiates.
- Hiding your drug use from others.
- Withdrawing from social activities or important events because of your opioid use.
On top of these psychological and behavioral signs of opioid abuse, abusing opiates is also associated with physical symptoms. Many of these mirror the short-term side effects of opioids, which are provided below.
Becoming addicted to opioids is associated with a range of other physical and psychological symptoms.
Once addiction takes hold, it becomes much harder to control your actions and your decisions. Many experts suggest that addiction is not a choice at all. In other words, your brain and body will do anything to continue using the opioid drugs that you have become dependent on.
Being addicted to opioids (whether heroin or prescription narcotics) is difficult to hide. It shows up in several different symptoms:
- Loss of Responsibility: Abusing prescription opioids or heroin begins to affect your ability to meet daily responsibilities. This could be at work, at school, or within the home.
- Loss of Control: You are no longer able to stop yourself from abusing your drug of choice, even if you tell yourself that you will cut back or stop altogether.
- Loss of Relationships: Your drug use begins to affect your personal relationships and keeps you from engaging in social activities and opportunities.
- Continuing Harm: You find that you continue using the opiate even after seeing the negative impact it has on your social, personal and physical health.
Not everyone will experience all of these signs and symptoms of opioid addiction. But if you see these changes in either yourself or someone you know, it may be time to reach out for professional addiction treatment help.
Like with any addiction, opioid addiction makes your body physically dependent on the effects of the drug. If you stop taking the drug, your body starts to experience strong cravings for the drug. On top of that, your body will experience a range of physical symptoms because it believes that it 'needs' the drug. This is what is known as withdrawal.
Withdrawal looks different for different kinds of drugs (and even different types of opioids). But one thing remains the same: it is extremely unpleasant. In some cases, opioid withdrawal can be dangerous. You should never try to go through with withdrawal by yourself.
Withdrawal symptoms begin anywhere between 6 to 30 hours after the last dose of the drug. The timeline depends on the type of opioid and whether it is short-action or long-action. Withdrawal symptoms tend to peak at about 72 hours - or three days after last taking a prescription opioid or shooting heroin.
In the withdrawal process, you can expect some or all of these most common opioid withdrawal symptoms:
- Intense drug cravings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Fever and sweats
- Running nose
- A fast heart rate
- Muscle aches
- Sleep problems
Prescription medication addiction is no joke. Thankfully, nearly every opioid addiction rehab programs include detox as part of the recovery process. Detoxing opioids allows you to move on to the next stages of opioid addiction treatment.
Treatment for Opioid Addiction
The opioid addiction statists and trends make it clear that addiction is a major issue in with opiates in the United States. But here's the good news: there can be effective treatment for opioid addiction and abuse.
Whether you struggle with prescription medication addiction or heroin abuse, opioid rehab can give you the resources, tools and support that you need to get on the road to recovery.
Around 20 million Americans struggle with a substance use disorder - but only 10% of them ever receive addiction treatment.
There are many different opioid addiction treatment options. This means that you can find the treatment approach and program that works well for you.
Opioid Rehab Option
There are essentially two types of addiction treatment programs: residential rehab and an intensive outpatient treatment program. Both of these addiction treatment programs have been shown to be effective. They simply have different purposes, and each one addresses the needs of the individual differently.
Residential rehab is the most intensive addiction treatment option. In residential rehab programs, participants will stay at the rehab facility for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
During this time, participants will engage in individual counseling and group support meetings. They will even participate in workshops designed to help them develop tools for managing their addiction.
Residential rehab is appropriate for individuals who have gone through addiction treatment in the past, or else have struggled with opiate addiction for many years before seeking out help.
Intensive Outpatient Treatment includes many of the elements of residential rehab, with a couple of added benefits. First, Intensive Outpatient Treatment programs allow those going through treatment to remain at home for the duration of the treatment. Instead of living in a facility, participants will come in to the rehab program several times each week.
The second benefit is that Intensive Outpatient Treatment programs are typically much cheaper than residential rehab. This opens up the possibility of treatment to many people who may not otherwise be able to afford it.
Intensive Outpatient Treatment is a good option for individuals who have not attempted treatment before. It also works great for those who need a cost-effective opiate treatment option.
Elements of Opioid Rehab
Whether you are participating in an IOP or a shorter residential rehab program, opiate addiction treatment should always include four major elements. These are not necessarily 'stages' of opioid addiction treatment. They are different aspects of the same process.
The combination of these approaches to treatment helps you in both the short- and long-term.
The first step of drug addiction treatment is to rid the body of the toxic effects of the drug. This is the withdrawal process. In treatment, it's called detox. Formal opiate treatment gives addicts a safe and supportive environment for going through the withdrawal stage.
Note: Detoxing from opioids can be dangerous on your own. Make sure you are in a safe and supportive environment for withdrawals from opiates.
Once the body is rid of the toxic drug, the mind can begin to work through the reasons for and effects of the addiction itself. This is where professional counseling comes in. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, helps individuals work through the negative impact of their addiction and move on to a better future.
Even after effective treatment ends, the effects of opiates and addiction are likely to follow a former addict for many years to come. Support groups - like Narcotics Anonymous - offer individuals on the road to recovery a supportive network to fall back on. Former addicts can continue to participate in these groups even after leaving formal treatment.
No matter what type of addiction treatment program you use, you should make sure that it includes all of these elements of opioid rehab for effective treatment.
The Danger of Opioid Addiction: Risks of Abuse & Addiction
Not everyone who uses prescription pain relievers will become addicted. But it's clear that the danger of abusing any form of opiate - from methadone to fentanyl to heroin - is not worth the risk.
Opioid addiction can be successfully avoided by understanding the risk factors for the drug. Getting to the bottom of the psychological, social and even genetic factors can help you prevent opioid addiction. Understanding these factors can even let you help friends and family facing opioid abuse.
This is where the hopeful message begins to take shape. Opioid addiction is serious and dangerous. But that does not mean it cannot be prevented - and it certainly does not mean it cannot be treated.
If you are not addicted to prescription drugs or heroin, you may be concerned that you could become addicted to opioids. If you are, it is important to recognize some of the risk factors associated with opioid addiction.
Addiction does not usually 'just happen'. Instead, several factors have to come together to create the potential for addiction in an individual. These are called risk factors.
Risk factors can be psychological, social, and even genetic.
Most experts agree that addiction has a genetic component - if a family member has struggled with addiction, you are more likely to face addiction yourself.
Some of the most common risk factors for opioid addiction include:
- Genetic influences
- A family history of addiction
- Other mental disorders (including depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder)
- A traumatic experience in the past
- High stress levels in your personal or professional life
- A lack of healthy family examples for how to deal with trauma or stress
- Using prescription opioids over a long period of time (i.e. for months instead of for weeks)
These risk factors do not necessarily mean that you will become addicted to opioids if you use them. But if you recognize one or several of these factors, you should know that your risk of opioid addiction is higher than normal.
If you meet some of the risk factors above, you are most likely wondering how to prevent opioid addiction in the first place.
There is no magic wand for preventing opioid addiction. But there are several steps that you can take to help you avoid developing dependence on the drug. If you find that you have to take prescription painkillers, consider taking the follow precautions to avoid the risks of abuse:
- Follow the directions on the prescription's label exactly.
- Do not use prescription pain relievers with other substances, like alcohol.
- Don't increase - or decrease - the dose of your prescription without first talking to your doctor.
- Never use someone else's prescription for opioids to continue using the drug.
- Never use narcotic-strength painkillers without a prescription.
Of course, on top of all of this the best way to prevent heroin addiction is to simply not use heroin at all. As an illicit street drug, there is no medical purpose for using heroin. Similarly, there is no reason for using synthetic opioids - like fentanyl - that are sold on the street. Do yourself a favor and avoid the risks of opioid abuse completely.
When you see someone struggling with opioid abuse or addiction, it is natural to want to help them. But many people are left wondering how, exactly, to help friends and family with substance use disorders.
Taking the time to read through this opioid addiction guide is a good start. Knowing what to look for can help you be better prepared to deal with opioid abuse in someone you know and love.
If you see signs of opioid abuse and symptoms of opioid addiction in someone you know, you should consider approaching them about getting help. As you approach them about their dependence or addiction to opiates, consider the following three guidelines:
- Never bring up their substance abuse - or opioid treatment - when they are under the influence.
- Focus on the ways that you want to help, but be clear about some of the specific negative effects that their opioid dependence has had.
- Don't try to force change yourself; instead, point them to professional treatment for opioid addiction. Rehab for opioids will be their best option for recovery.
The Danger of Abuse: Opioid Side Effects
Addiction is of course the main concern when it comes to opioid abuse. But it is not the only concern.
Opioid use - and especially opioid abuse - has a wide range of negative side effects. Even in the short-term, opiates can affect your physical and psychological health. When abused over the long-term, opiates can bring about many major complications in your health.
The side effects of opioid abuse and addiction can be broken down into four categories:
- Physical side effects of opioid abuse
- Mental side effects of opioid addiction
- Short-term side effects of opioid drug use
- Long-term side effects of opioid drugs
These side effects of opioid abuse have a lot of overlap. But breaking them down can help us understand just how detrimental opioid abuse is. Before using opiates, consider the long-term, short-term, physical and mental side effects of opioids.
Prescription pain relievers may be legal, but that does not mean that they are always safe. Even with a prescription, opioid painkillers pose a risk to both your physical and mental health.
Even prescription opioids can be used to get high. So there's no question that the drug has an impact on the brain. Some of this impact is negative. Opioids can lower brain functioning, inhibit a person's ability to engage in clear thinking, and even lower their attention span. And these are just the psychological side effects of an opiate.
On top of these, painkillers and other forms of opiates have physical side effects on the user. When used over the long-term, opioids actually increase the risk of heart complications.
But the biggest risk comes from the drug's effect on breathing. Opiates cause 'respiratory depression', which means the drug shallows breathing. When too much of an opiate is used (either as heroin or a painkiller), it can actually stop breathing completely.
This is the primary cause of an opioid overdose. Clearly, the physical and mental side effects of opioids are extremely dangerous.
Experiencing cravings and withdrawal symptoms is not the only sign that opioid use has turned into abuse. Just like prescription medication has negative side effects, abusing opioids can have heavy physical and psychological side effects. This is true even in the short-term.
Some of the most common short-term side effects of opioid abuse include:
- Confused thinking and poor judgment
- Increased anxiety and stress
- Feeling unable to make plans or decisions
- An inability to concentrate on work or conversations
- A shorter attention span
- Nausea and vomiting
- Itching and rashes
- Slurred speech
- Memory problems
- Respiratory depression (i.e. extremely shallow breathing)
- Sleeping problems (either sleeping too much or being unable to sleep)
- Physical cravings for opioid drugs
If you see any of these short-term effects when using prescription opioids, you should talk to your doctor and seek out professional addiction help immediately.
Addiction to opiates does not only have short-term side effects. Dependence on opioids also affects psychological and physical health in the long-term.
Some of these long-term opioid effects overlap with the short-term symptoms of opioid abuse. The major difference here is that they can turn into chronic conditions that last a much longer period of time. The most common long-term side effects of opioid addiction include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Brain damage (as a result of respiratory problems and hypoxia)
- Developing a tolerance for the effects of the drug
- Developing dependence on the drug
Of course, these last two long-term side effects of opioid addiction are what primarily lead to drug abuse and addiction.
The most dangerous of the long-term opioid effects is developing a tolerance for the drug. As the body gets used to opioid effects, a person may begin to take more and more of the drug. This can eventually lead to an overdose - and sometimes even death.
Rehab Programs for Opioid Addiction
This opioid addiction guide should serve as a good starting point for anyone looking to learn more about substance use disorders, opioid abuse, and opioid addiction.
Even after learning more about opioid addiction, you may be looking for more information about getting therapy for addiction or even entering drug rehab. We are here to help you take those next steps.
Standing in direct opposition to the discouraging opioid addiction statistics is the hope offered by opioid addiction treatment. With opioid treatment programs and hundreds of national resources for opioid addiction, you do not have to resign yourself to the negative effects of opioid addiction.
With this guide as the foundation, we can help you get the facts - and then take the next steps toward recovery.