Opium - Side Effects, Risks, & Treatment

Opium is a dangerous and illegal narcotic. However, opium is the base for many legal prescription medications, known as opioids. These can be used to treat a variety of symptoms. However, if they are misused or abused, they can have serious consequences.
Evidence Based
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What Is Opium?

Opium is a highly addictive and potent illegal narcotic used for its euphoric properties and its ability to relieve pain. It is a derivative of the opium poppy plant. Opium is the base of legal opioid prescription medications when combined into pharmaceutical drugs such as Oxycodone, Codeine, Morphine, and Fentanyl, to name a few. Additionally, there is the widespread use of opium in the illegal drug heroin.

In its raw form, opium extraction from seed capsules of the poppy plant yield a milky "latex." The latex is processed and manufactured into various opioid products that can be smoked, injected, drunken, snorted, or taken in tablet form.

More than half of the 632,331 drug overdose deaths in the United States from 1999-2016 involved opioids (including prescription and illicit opioids, such as heroin and illicitly-manufactured fentanyl). They led to over 42,000 deaths in the US in 2016 alone — a statistically significant increase from 2015

Opium is an ancient drug, as many civilizations have used it throughout the world for over 8,000 years and counting.

Side effects of opium

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Common side effects of opium use include:

  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Euphoria
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flushing
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Itching and rash
  • Seizure
  • Red eyes

Medical Use

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Currently, many Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved opioid medications to treat moderate-to-severe pain. The variation of drugs available come in different forms and have varying levels of potency.

When in a person's system, the drug attaches to the opioid receptors in the brain, and therefore, suppresses pain signals sent to the brain. These receptors control the central nervous system (CNS). However, too much of the drug can suppress the CNS to the point of slowed breathing that can drop to dangerously low levels, or stop altogether. Additionally, opioids can be highly addictive as it alters behavior and motivation within the brain. Hence, today's doctors use caution when prescribing opioids, and it must be under strict direction.

Illegal use

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Illegal use of opioids is a significant problem throughout the world, particularly in the U.S. The illicit drug trade is thriving. In addition to the unlawful drugs of heroin and pure opium, legal drugs are often stolen or make their way to the streets and then sold.

Most people who use opioids illegally are doing so to get "high" from their euphoric effects. Some have become addicted to prescription opioids and search for cheaper alternatives or can no longer get a doctor's prescription.

Risks of opium

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There are many risk of opium use, including dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and a high risk for addiction:


Dependence is a term used to describe a person's physical and psychological loss of control. Dependence occurs when a person abuses or misuses this drug, among others. Abuse or misuse of the drug will occur when:

  • A patient takes more of the drug than prescribed
  • A patient takes medicine without a prescription altogether
  • When used in any way other than intended

People become at high risk for dependence and addiction, as well as other unintended consequences.

Once dependent, a person will experience symptoms of withdrawal if they abruptly stop taking the drug. Opioids are highly potent drugs. Hence, the dependence of the drug can be severe and can cause intense withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • A strong craving for the drug
  • Profuse sweating and clamminess
  • Runny nose
  • Chills and goosebumps
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Hallucinations
  • Homicidal or suicidal thoughts
  • Insomnia


Opioids have a high potential for addiction. People that suffer through the addiction stage chemically alter their behavior and find themselves constantly thinking about the drug and will pursue it at all costs.

Since pain is a legitimate concern for people that have an opioid prescription, it may be challenging to identify someone as addicted. The drug is legal, so the symptoms of addiction may be subtle and difficult to notice at first. For many, addiction may set in unknowingly to the person taking the drug.

Many times addiction may be painfully obvious. Illegal opioids are highly potent and often taken in ways to maximize the "high." The symptoms of addiction can include:

  • Depression
  • Neglect of personal relationships and isolation
  • A decline in fulfilling responsibilities at work and home
  • Visible fatigue and drifting off
  • Strong desire to use the drug, particularly with frequent visits to the ER to coax doctors into writing them a prescription
  • Mood swings
  • Apathy
  • Lapses in memory
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Financial or legal problems
  • Visiting different physicians to obtain opioid prescriptions, also known as doctor shopping
  • Seemingly distant or "nodding out"


An opium overdose can cause severe symptoms and even death. It is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Therefore, large quantities become toxic, drastically affecting vital systems in the body, especially breathing. Initial symptoms of overdose include:

  • Vomiting and stomach cramps
  • Slurred speech and loss of basic motor functions
  • Slow pulse and low blood pressure
  • Pin-point-shaped pupils
  • Blue lips and fingertips
  • Cold to the touch
  • Clammy skin
  • Seizure

A person's breathing slows to a dangerously low pace. So, this causes a lack of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs. In many cases, breathing stops altogether, resulting in permanent, irreversible damage to the brain and other organs, coma, and even death. Immediate medical attention is required.

The drug Naloxone, an opioid agonist, is often used to remove opioids from the brain's receptors and counteract its effects. It is fast-acting, so people normally experience instant withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment Options

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If opioid use develops to physical dependency, a physician will often have a patient taper off of the drug(s). This method is necessary to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. If addiction has occurred, a person usually needs to seek medical, emotional, and psychological help to aid in recovery and prevent relapse.

More than two-thirds of people admitted into substance abuse treatment programs first used a non-heroin opioid by age 25.

The most crucial step towards recovery is to identify and admit the problem and have a desire to change. Often, people have become addicted and are unaware or in denial. Intervention can be a turning point towards taking the first step. Accordingly, in-patient rehabilitation is the most effective form of treatment and may be needed to get a person drug-free.

A doctor may also prescribe a medication to address underlying issues that may have led to addiction, such as depression or PTSD. To face these issues, a person has to go through detox and therapy. This is because some of the symptoms of substance use disorder (SUD) mimic those of mental health issues.

Thus, a multi-discipline approach is necessary for successful treatment. There are many options for long-term support, including treatment programs, counseling, support groups, and hotlines, among others. Likewise, family and friends are a key support structure.

Ready to Make a Change?


Opium. 26 June 2019, https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/opium/

Center, AuthorsSubmit. “An 8,000-Year History of Use and Abuse of Opium and Opioids: How That Matters For A Successful Control Of The Epidemic ? (P4.9-055).” Neurology, 9 Apr. 2019, https://n.neurology.org/content/92/15_Supplement/P4.9-05.

“Heroin.” Truth, https://www.thetruth.com/categories/heroin/fact


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Updated on: June 24, 2020
Addiction Group Staff
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Medically Reviewed: March 3, 2020
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Annamarie Coy,
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