Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

What are the Dangers & Treatment for Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction, or opioid use disorder (OUD), occurs after the continuous use or misuse of opioids (narcotics). Narcotics are addictive prescription drugs that relieve and manage intense and chronic pain. Its ability to cause euphoria contributes to its potential for addiction. 

This condition affects approximately 16 million people worldwide, including three million Americans.1 OUD has long-term detrimental effects on both the brain and body, ultimately leading to life-threatening consequences.

What Causes Opioid Use Disorder?

Genetic and environmental factors play a role in developing opioid use disorder. In some cases, it begins with a doctor’s prescription.

Some prescription opioid medications take effect quickly and are highly potent, increasing their addictive potential. People who mix other mind-altering substances, including alcohol, have a higher risk of developing an addiction.

What are the Signs of Opioid Use Disorder?

Opioid addiction often occurs soon after a person develops a tolerance for the drug. Drug tolerance is when someone requires larger amounts and more frequent doses of the drug to achieve the same effect as when they first started using the substance.

Other signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Inability to enjoy once-loved activities
  • Lack of concentration
  • Inability to manage time
  • Difficulties with making or keeping commitments
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Lack of judgment
  • Reckless or dangerous behavior  

What are the Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal?

Suddenly stopping opioid use after becoming physically dependent on them causes these withdrawal symptoms:

  • Muscle aches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Extremely intense cravings for the drug
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Body shakes
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Runny nose

What are the Signs of Opioid Overdose?

Recognizing an opioid overdose can be challenging. It’s always best to assume the worst and seek medical attention, even with legal risks.

Signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Limp body (antalgic gait)
  • Choking
  • Pale, cold, and or blue skin (cyanotic skin)

How To Respond to an Opioid Overdose

Rapid intervention is crucial to reverse an opioid overdose. Victims of overdose should receive Naloxone, an FDA-approved “rescue drug” that counteracts the life-threatening effects of an overdose. 

In 2018, the US Surgeon General recommended that people at risk of overdose, as well as friends, family, and community members, carry Naloxone to administer in case of an emergency. Naloxone has no risk of abuse and addiction.2

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How Do You Treat Opioid Use Disorder?

The best way to treat opioid use disorder is through a multi-faceted approach. This includes taking behavioral therapy, medication, and support groups.

  • Supervised detoxification: To prevent the worsening of withdrawal symptoms, it’s best to detoxify at professional treatment centers and not abruptly stop use.
  • Behavioral therapies: These programs help you change your attitude towards opioids. They also help you develop coping strategies for cravings and stressors that can lead to relapse.
  • Medication: When you receive these medications under medical supervision, they help reduce cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.
  • Support groups: Support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or SMART Recovery provide a safe environment where you can talk openly about your addiction and learn from others in the same situation.

Treatment of opioid use disorder is an ongoing process that requires commitment and discipline. Finding the right treatment plan is essential for long-term success.

How To Diagnose Opioid Addiction

To diagnose opioid use disorder, medical professionals use the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria. It outlines 11 symptoms and criteria where you must experience at least two within the last 12 months to receive such a diagnosis.

  • Using larger amounts of opioids over a longer period than intended
  • Failing to cut down or control opioid use without success 
  • Investing a lot of time obtaining or using the opioid or recovering from its effects
  • Craving or having a strong desire to use opioids
  • Neglecting work, school, or home responsibilities
  • Continued opioid use despite adverse social or interpersonal problems
  • Avoiding or spending less time engaged in previously enjoyed activities because of opioid use
  • Using opioids in hazardous situations
  • Continued opioid use despite physical or psychological issues due to drug use 
  • Developing a tolerance to the drug’s effects and needing more and more to achieve the desired effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms or using opioids to avoid withdrawal symptoms

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How Can You Prevent Opioid Use Disorder?

To help prevent OUD, it's essential to follow these steps:

  • Only take opioids as prescribed: Don't take more than the necessary dose or for a longer period than your doctor prescribed.
  • Avoid sharing prescriptions: Never share medications, as this can lead to dependency and other health risks.
  • Keep track of your medication: Keep them safe and secure, and monitor how many you have left to prevent accidental overdose or misuse.
  • Educate yourself and others: Share information about the dangers of opioid use, its potential for addiction, and ways to seek help with friends and family members.
  • Seek alternative forms of recreation: Find alternative activities that are enjoyable and don’t involve drug use.
  • Seek help for mental health conditions: Instead of self-medicating with drugs, seek proper treatment and support.

What Are the Different Kinds of Opioids?

The most common opioids that lead to abuse, dependence, and addiction include:

  • Opiates: Users widely abuse natural opioids like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin, according to NIH
  • Heroin: Morphine-derived, highly addictive, and can cause severe long-term effects
  • Analgesics: Prescription or OTC pain relievers, which misuse can lead to side effects and addiction
  • Codeine: For pain and cough, which misuse can result in tolerance, addiction, and overdose
  • Vicoprofen: Combines ibuprofen and hydrocodone with high addiction risk factors and severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Methadone: Treats pain and narcotic drug addictions and poses risks of overdose and long-term side effects 
  • Opium or Opana: Illegal with high addiction potential, and can cause severe symptoms and death.
  • Fentanyl: Synthetic opioid, a potent painkiller, and has risks of tolerance, dependence, and addiction
  • Dilaudid: Treats severe pain with high potential for abuse and respiratory depression
  • Suboxone: Treats opioid addictions with rare overdose potential
  • Demerol: Short-term for moderate to severe pain; high doses can cause respiratory distress
  • Tramadol: Pain reliever, which poses a risk of dependence and respiratory depression
  • Hydrocodone: For severe pain and as a cough suppressant with a risk of overdose
  • Vicodin: Treats moderate pain, which high doses or combination with alcohol can be fatal
  • Morphine: For moderate to severe pain; risk of overdose and withdrawal
  • Oxycodone: Powerful painkiller with increased risk of addiction and dependence
  • Propoxyphene: Mild pain reliever with risk of addiction and overdose
  • Percocet: Can release excessive dopamine and lead to euphoria, with risk of misuse and dependence
  • Norco: Treats pain and suppresses cough with a high risk of addiction
  • Lortab: Pain reliever with risks of respiratory depression and liver failure, with high abuse potential

Resources for Help and Support

If you or someone you know is struggling with OUD, resources are available to help. Consider reaching out to:

  • National Helpline: 1-800-237-TALK (8255)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Treatment locator
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
  • Your primary care provider or a mental health professional: Consult them for personalized guidance and treatment options

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Summary

Opioids are powerful prescription drugs that reduce pain. However, they also have a high potential for abuse, addiction, overdose, and death.

Seek immediate medical help if you or someone you know is experiencing an opioid overdose. Likewise, seek medical help if you or someone you know has developed an opioid drug addiction.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
12 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Azadfard et al. “Opioid Addiction.” StatPearls Publishing, 2023.
  2. Trends in Drug Abuse.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.
  3. Moeller et al. “Clinical Interpretation of Urine Drug Test: What Clinicians Need to Know About Urine Drug Screens.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2017.
  4. Prescription Opioids DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021.
  5. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Opioids and Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)” MedlinePlus, 2023.
  6. More FAQs about Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023.
  7. Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal.” MedlinePlus, 2022.
  9. Opioid Use Disorder.” American Psychiatric Association, 2022.
  10. Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019.
  11. The ASAM National Practice Guideline 2020 Focused Update.” American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2020.
  12. Overdose Prevention Strategy.”  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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