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Updated on August 31, 2021

Opium - Side Effects, Risks, & Treatment

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 (Papaver somniferum). Opium is the base of legal opioid prescription drugs such as oxycodone, methadone, codeine, morphine, hydrocodone, 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 (such as opium tincture) 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.

Opium Side Effects

Common side effects of opium use include:

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

Alert your doctor right away for medical advice if you have more serious side effects such as:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Blurred vision
  • Severe stomach pain / abdominal pain
  • Difficulty urinating

Seek medical help immediately if you experience very serious side effects including:

  • Fainting
  • Seizures
  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Extreme tiredness / inability to stay awake

Opium can pass into breast milk and can affect nursing babies. Speak with your doctor and request full drug information if you are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant or breast-feeding before starting and opioid medications.

Before using any derivative of opium, be sure to give your doctor your full medical history, especially if you or your family has any history of:

  • Brain disorders
  • Breathing problems
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Drug use
  • Stomach problems
  • Prostate, pancreas, or gallbladder issues

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Medical Use

Currently, many Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved opioid medications to treat moderate-to-severe pain. The variation of pain relievers 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 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.

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Illegal use

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

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

Dependence

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

Addiction

Opioids have a high potential for drug abuse and 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"

Overdose

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.

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

Treatment Options for Opioid Abuse & Addiction

Opioid use disorder is difficult to overcome. Fortunately, there are several options for help. These include:

  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) When it comes to medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder, there are three types approved: buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. Buprenorphine and methadone help manage withdrawal symptoms as you detox. Naltrexone blocks the receptors that opioids bind to, making it impossible to get high from them. Medication-assisted therapy is most effective when combined with other therapies.
  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient programs are the most intensive addiction treatment options. These programs guide you through medical supervised detoxification, behavioral therapy and other services such as medication-assisted therapy. They typically last 30, 60 or 90 days, but may be longer if necessary.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Intensive outpatient programs are the next level of addiction treatment, providing similar services to inpatient programs such as detoxification and behavioral therapy. The difference is that the patient will return home to sleep, and some programs will include transportation and meals. PHPs are ideal for both new patients as well as those who have completed inpatient treatment but still need intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs provide a well-rounded treatment program for people with a high motivation to recover. These programs are flexible and can be made around for your schedule, and can be customized to work best for you. These programs work for new patients as well as those that complete an inpatient or partial hospitalization program.

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Resources

MORE
LESS

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

https://www.fda.gov/media/116265/download

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