Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are a type of drug. They include strong prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and tramadol. The illegal drug heroin is also an opioid. Some opioids are made from the opium plant, and others are synthetic (man-made).
What is opioid addiction?
Opioid addiction is a powerful urge to use certain medicines called opioids.
But what are opioids?
Opioids are medicines that are often prescribed by a doctor to help relieve pain. An addiction is a strong craving to do something. In this case, it’s a strong craving to use opioids. Addiction is a disease that affects your brain and behavior. At first, you have control over your choice to use opioids. But if you don’t follow your doctor’s instructions for the medicine, its effect eventually makes you want to keep using it. Over time, your brain actually changes so that you develop a powerful urge to take opioids.
Opioids are prescribed to treat many issues such as the following:
- Toothaches and dental procedures
- Chronic conditions such as cancer
Some prescription cough medicines also contain opioids.
Opioids work by lowering the number of pain signals your body sends to your brain. They also change how your brain responds to pain. When used correctly, opioids are safe. But when people misuse the medicine (opioid use disorder), they can become addicted. People can also become addicted to opioids by using the drug illegally.
Some opioid drugs include:
- Hydrocodone and oxycodone
- Hydromorphone and oxymorphone
Why do people become addicted to opioids?
Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary for survival. As you learn to tolerate the dose you’ve been prescribed, you may find that you need even more medication to relieve the pain or achieve well-being, which can lead to dependency. Addiction takes hold of our brains in several ways — and is far more complex and less forgiving than many people realize.
Symptoms of opioid addiction
Opioid addiction is also called substance abuse. The signs and symptoms of substance abuse can be physical, behavioral, and psychological. One clear sign of addiction is not being able to stop using opioids. Another sign is if a person is not able to stop using more than the amount prescribed by their doctor.
Other signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include:
- Shallow or slow breathing rate
- Physical agitation
- Poor decision making
- Abandoning responsibilities
- Mood swings
- Lowered motivation
- Anxiety attacks
You might have an opioid addiction if you crave the drug or if you feel you can’t control the urge to take the drug. You may also be addicted if you keep using the drug without your doctor’s consent, even if the drug is causing trouble for you. The trouble may be with your health, with money, with work or school, with the law, or with your relationships with family or friends. Your friends and family may be aware of your addiction problem before you are. They may notice the changes in your behavior.
If you take too many opioids, you may experience an opioid overdose. This is a very serious medical condition. Symptoms include:
- Unresponsiveness (can’t wake up)
- Slow, irregular breathing, or not breathing at all
- Slow, erratic pulse, or no pulse
- Loss of consciousness (passing out)
- Small pupils in their eyes
What causes opioid addiction?
Opioid drugs alter your brain by creating artificial endorphins. Besides blocking pain, these endorphins make you feel good. Too much opioid use can cause your brain to rely on these artificial endorphins. Once your brain does this, it can even stop producing its own endorphins. The longer you use opioids, the more likely this is to happen. You also will need more opioids over time because of drug tolerance.
Drug tolerance is when your body, over time, gets used to the effects of a drug. As this happens, you may need to take a higher dose of the drug to get the same effect. When you take opioids over time, you need a higher dose to get the same pain relief.
If you stop using an opioid for a period of time, your tolerance will begin to fade. If you need to begin taking it again, you most likely will not need your former higher dose. That can be too much for the body to take. If you stop taking a medication, and then resume, talk to your doctor about dosage.
Your doctor or a medical health professional can diagnose opioid use disorder and opioid addiction. Diagnosis will include a medical assessment. It also often includes testing for mental health disorders.
Can opioid addiction be prevented or avoided?
Many people are able to use opioids safely without becoming addicted to them. But their potential for addiction is high. This is especially true if you use them for long-term pain management.
In general, you are more likely to avoid addiction if you can use opioid drugs for no longer than a week. Research shows that using them for more than a month can make you dependent on them.
Opioid addiction treatment
Opioid addiction is a chronic illness and should be treated the same as other chronic illnesses. Like those, it should continually be managed and monitored. You should feel comfortable discussing treatment with your family doctor, who is properly trained for this treatment.
Treatment for opioid addiction is different for each person. The main goal of treatment is to help you stop using the drug. Treatment also can help you avoid using it again in the future.
When you stop using opioids, your body will react. You will have a number of symptoms that may include nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and anxiety. This reaction is called withdrawal.
Your doctor can prescribe certain medicines to help relieve your withdrawal symptoms. They also will help control your cravings. These medicines include methadone (often used to treat heroin addiction), buprenorphine, and naltrexone.
Methadone and buprenorphine help reduce withdrawal symptoms by targeting the same centers in the brain that opioids target. Only they do not make you feel high. They help restore balance to your brain and allow it to heal. You may safely take the medicines long term, even for a lifetime. You should not quit them without first telling your doctor.
Naltrexone is another medicine your doctor may prescribe. This medicine doesn’t help you stop taking opioids. It is to help prevent relapse. Relapsing means to start taking opioids again. This medicine is different from methadone and buprenorphine because it does not help with cravings or withdrawal. Instead, it prevents you from feeling the high you would normally feel when you take opioids.
You may also need help with your mental or emotional addiction to opioids. Behavioral treatments can help you learn how to manage depression. These treatments also help you avoid opioids, deal with cravings, and heal damaged relationships. Some behavioral treatments include individual counseling, group or family counseling, and cognitive therapy. Ask your doctor for a recommendation.