Updated on April 8, 2024
7 min read

Types of Opiates, Risks of Use & Addiction

The terms opiates and opioids are often used interchangeably, but they have different definitions. Opiates are naturally occurring substances found in the poppy plant, while opioids are an umbrella term that includes naturally occurring, semi-synthetic, and fully synthetic versions of these substances.

The potential for misuse and addiction when it comes to both opiates and opioids has made them a topic of heated debate. Many argue for their contributions to pain relief but are often shut down by the long history of opium addiction and abuse they’re better known for.

Because of this, opiates are strictly regulated by law under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and it’s illegal to be in possession of them without a prescription. Some opiates are considered illegal altogether and have no accepted medical use.

Are Opiates Addictive?

Yes, opiates are very addictive. They interact with opioid receptors in the brain, reducing pain sensations and creating a feeling of euphoria.

With continued opiate use, the body adapts and starts producing fewer of its natural painkillers (endorphins). This means it begins to rely on the drug for pain relief and to feel normal.

Over time, your tolerance increases, and you may need larger doses to get the same effect. This leads to a cycle where increasingly higher doses are needed, resulting in addiction.

It's crucial to remember that addiction is a complex medical condition, not a character flaw. If you or a loved one are struggling with opiate dependence, there is help and hope for recovery.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Addiction?

Addiction symptoms can vary from one person to another in terms of how many you will experience and how intense they’ll be. Common signs of opiate addiction include:

  • Using large amounts of a drug or for longer periods than intended or prescribed
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the use of the drug
  • Excessive time and effort invested in getting, using, and recovering from the use of the drug
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Neglecting obligations 
  • Continued use despite problems caused by the usage, the risk of harm (including overdose), and awareness of the problem
  • Stealing prescriptions, doctor shopping to get multiple prescriptions, or even trying to convince your doctor to up your dosage

Opiate addiction is dangerous. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or in someone you know, make sure you get medical intervention immediately. Your doctor can help you get off the drug safely so you don’t have to suffer through intense withdrawal.

What Are the Side Effects of Opiates?

Whether you're taking opiates as prescribed or misusing them, side effects can occur. Among the most common is constipation.

Opiates disrupt bowel movements by inhibiting contractions. These lead to difficulty passing stools, resulting in hardened ones that block the bowels. Blockage can potentially cause bowel rupture, sepsis, and even death.

To combat these effects, opiate users should consider the following:

  • Increasing their fiber intake
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Staying hydrated with ample water consumption

General and Severe Opiate Side Effects

Side effects vary based on dosage amount, method of how the drug is used, and previous opiate exposure.

The other side effects of opiates include:

  • Itching
  • Sedation
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Tremors
  • Anxiousness
  • Insomnia
  • Upset stomach
  • Dry mouth
  • Pupil contraction
  • Hallucination
  • Sweating
  • Delirium
  • Confusion
  • Extreme irritability
  • Muscle pain and spasms

Severe side effects include:

  • Coma
  • Circulatory collapse
  • Severe respiratory depression
  • Cardiac arrest

What Are the Signs of Opiate Withdrawal?

Someone addicted to or dependent on opiates will experience withdrawal if they stop using the drug—especially if they stop use abruptly. Opiate withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant and possibly dangerous.

Withdrawal occurs because the body has gotten so used to the presence of the drug that its absence may cause it to think that it’s out of balance. This causes the uncomfortable symptoms you may experience.

Symptoms of opiate withdrawal are similar to extreme flu symptoms, including:

  • Intense cravings
  • Aches
  • Involuntary muscle movements
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chills
  • Dilated pupils
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Yawning

Severe symptoms tend to alleviate within a few days, but full opiate withdrawal can last several weeks. Cravings and milder symptoms can last for months.

The discomfort associated with withdrawal can increase the risk of relapse, as people may seek to alleviate these symptoms by using opiates again. This cycle of withdrawal, relapse, and continued drug use is a characteristic feature of opioid addiction. This is why we advise considering medically supervised detoxification.

Intensity and Secondary Complications of Opiate Withdrawal

Nausea and vomiting are two of the most intense symptoms associated with withdrawal. Vomiting can lead to secondary complications, including aspiration pneumonia (when you accidentally breathe vomited material into the lungs).

Diarrhea is another potentially dangerous symptom that can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, which can cause heart and circulatory issues.

What Are Opiate Overdose Symptoms?

Opiate overdose is a medical emergency. When you take more than the recommended amount of opiates, it can lead to respiratory depression and other life-threatening symptoms.

Recognizing the signs is essential if you suspect someone has overdosed on opiates. Symptoms include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Nervous system changes
  • Irregular or abnormal vital signs
  • Cold or clammy skin or bluish lips

These symptoms are a result of slowed respiration and severe depression in the central nervous system, which affects several vital organs. With less oxygen going around the body, you’re at greater risk for fatal consequences.

If you notice anyone around you with these symptoms, call 911 immediately. The medical response team may ask what drug was taken. If this is the case, be honest with the emergency team so they can prepare accordingly.


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Treatment Options for Opiate Addiction

Opiate addiction is a medical disorder and requires professional treatment. Recovery can come with challenges, including exposure to relapse triggers and temptations.

Developing relapse prevention strategies, such as identifying triggers, building coping skills, and having a support network, is crucial to maintaining sobriety. The most successful treatment plans involve a holistic approach, combining medications, therapy, support groups, or 12-step programs.

Remember that addiction recovery isn’t anything you should be ashamed of. It’s important to recognize when you have a problem and to take steps to get back on track. It may not be an easy road, but recovery will be well worth it.


The medications that healthcare providers administer in opiate addiction treatment include:

  • Methadone: A full opioid agonist that helps reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings for opioids
  • Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that has similar effects to methadone but is less addictive
  • Naltrexone: An opioid antagonist that blocks the euphoric effects of opioids
  • Suboxone: A combination of buprenorphine and naltrexone

Ideally, medications should be used in conjunction with counseling and support groups.


Individual or group therapy helps people identify the underlying cause of their addiction and develop healthy coping mechanisms to prevent relapse. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most common therapy for opiate addiction.

12-Step Programs

12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), provide social support and a network of people who understand what it’s like to struggle with opiate addiction. They also offer step-by-step guidance on how to stay clean and sober.

Inpatient and Outpatient Programs

Treatment for opiate addiction is available in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Inpatient treatment offers 24-hour access to medical professionals and an intensive program tailored to the needs of each person.

Outpatient programs offer more freedom. However, the lack of structure and support might be less effective for severe addictions.

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How to Support Someone Going Through Recovery

Recovery is a tough process. If you know someone who’s going through addiction recovery, here are some ways you can help:

1. Educate Yourself

Learning about addiction and its effects can help you understand what your loved one is going through. Proper education can help you provide informed support.

2. Offer Substance-Free Fun

Help your loved one find joy in activities that don't involve substances. You can join them in trying out different hobbies, sports, or other interests that promote a healthy lifestyle.

3. Vocalize Your Support

Let your loved one know that you support them in their addiction recovery. Tell them that you’re willing to help in their recovery process while encouraging them to seek professional help.

4. Listen to Your Loved One

Being a good listener will show your loved one that you support them. Allow your loved one to share their feelings and experiences about addiction recovery with you without judgment.

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Updated on April 8, 2024

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