Prescription Opioid Addiction, Effects, & Treatment
What Are Prescription Opioids?
Prescription opioids are a type of medication that is used to treat pain that is moderate or severe.1, 2 People with cancer, severe injuries, post-surgical pain are often prescribed opioids.
Chronic pain can also be treated with prescription opioids, but nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred given the risks associated with long-term opioid use.1, 3 These medications are legal when prescribed by a medical professional and used as directed but have a high potential for abuse.4
Opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and throughout the body transmit pain signals.3, 4 Prescription opioids bind to these receptors and diminish pain signals that are transferred between the body and brain, thereby reducing the sensation of pain.3, 4 Opioids can also can produce feelings of pleasure and relaxation.3, 4
What Drugs Are Considered Prescription Opioids?
A range of prescription opioids are available in the United States. Common prescription opioids include:2, 3, 4, 5
- Fentanyl (Duragesic).
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin).
- Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose).
- Morphine (Avinza, Kadian).
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet).
- Oxymorphone (Opana).
Some opioids are illegal and aren’t used for any medical purpose but have effects similar to prescription opioids.2,4, 6
Heroin is well-known illicit opioid and is involved in almost 40 overdose deaths in the United States each day.2, 4, 5, 6
Although fentanyl—a very strong synthetic opioid used to manage severe pain—has legal uses, forms of illicit fentanyl are becoming more common. The substances most likely to be involved in fatal overdoses in the United States are synthetic fentanyl or fentanyl-like opioids.7
What Are the Signs of Opioid Use Disorder?
Opioid use disorder, or opioid addiction, is a disease that’s diagnosed by a medical or clinical professional. A formal diagnosis requires that specific criteria be met.8
A diagnosis of opioid use disorder involves at least 2 of the following criteria within a 1-year period:8
Opioid use disorder can range from mild to severe, depending on how many of the criteria are demonstrated within a 1-year period.4, 8
Misusing Prescription Medication
Prescription opioid misuse can occur in a variety of ways. Misuse can refer to taking medication in larger doses, more frequently, or for a longer period of time than prescribed.3, 4
It can also involve taking the medication in a different way than prescribed. This can include chewing a pill, crushing and snorting it, or dissolving it in water and injecting it.3, 4
Taking prescription opioids that aren’t prescribed to you, even if you have the same condition for which they were prescribed, is also considered misuse.3, 4
There are some physical and behavioral signs to be aware of that can indicate a person may be misusing opioids or may have developed an addiction. These can include:9, 10
- Continuing to take medication even after the injury or condition has resolved.
- Obtaining pills from multiple pharmacies or doctors or purchasing them illegally.
- Refusal to try medications other than opioids.
- Reporting medication as stolen multiple times.
- Running out of medication early.
- Skipping appointments or missing plans.
- Stating that the medication isn’t working.
- Stealing money or property.
- Sudden changes in behavior or mood.
What Are the Health Risks of Taking Prescription Opioids?
Even if opioid medications are taken as prescribed, they can cause a variety of side effects.1, 4 Opioid side effects can be unpleasant, although some may subside over time.1, 3, 4
Side effects of opioids can include:1, 3, 4
- Difficulty staying awake.
- Dry mouth.
- Feeling dizzy.
- Increased pain levels.
- Reduction in testosterone, leading to low libido and energy levels.
- Trouble breathing.
Other Health Effects
Prescription opioids can have other effects on your health, especially when they are misused.1, 3, 4 Chronic use or misuse of prescription opioids can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. These terms are related but mean different things.3, 4
Tolerance is when your body becomes accustomed to the effects of a medication and it no longer works as well as it used to.3, 4 When you have built up a tolerance to prescription pain medication, you may begin to take it more often or in larger amounts to manage pain or to feel the same effects.1, 3, 4
Tolerance can develop when an opioid medication is taken on a regular basis, even if it’s taken as prescribed.3, 4 It can also be a warning sign of a physical dependence to medication.
Dependence is when you take opioids regularly and your body relies on them to function normally.3, 4 If you stop taking opioids while you are physically dependent, you can experience withdrawal symptoms that can be extremely uncomfortable and make it difficult to stop using this type of medication.1, 3, 4
Tolerance and dependence can also be potential signs of addiction, which is defined as compulsive use of substances and an inability to stop using them even after experiencing negative consequences as a result of opioid use.3, 4
Other health effects and complications from opioids can occur with chronic use, including:8
- Dry mouth, which can potentially contribute to dental problems.
- Extreme constipation and digestive problems, as opioids reduce the ability of the gastrointestinal tract to function properly.
- Irritation of the nasal passages, if prescription opioids are snorted.
- Scarring of the veins and increased risk of infection or contraction of blood-borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis, if prescription opioids are injected.
- Hormone interference, such as erectile dysfunction for men and menstrual irregularities for women.
What Does an Opioid Overdose Look Like?
It’s possible to overdose on prescription opioids and is more likely to occur if the medication is being misused.3, 4 A potentially fatal overdose can occur after taking just a single high dose of opioids, especially when combined with other depressants such as alcohol or benzodiazepines.3, 4
Signs of an opioid overdose include:3, 4, 11
- Breathing that is slow or shallow or stopped.
- Difficulty staying awake, or loss of consciousness.
- Making choking or gurgling noises.
- Skin that is cold, pale, or blue.
- Very small (pinpoint) pupils.
- When the body goes limp.
If you are concerned that someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, there are some things you can do to help them.
How Do You Treat Opioid Addiction?
It’s possible to detox and recover from an opioid use disorder. Opioid addiction treatment may involve one or more types of behavioral therapy as well as medication-assisted treatment (MAT).12
Opioid addiction treatment centers may offer the following therapies as part of a comprehensive treatment program:3, 12, 13, 14
- Behavioral therapy can help to increase motivation to stay abstinent, change behaviors associated with using opioids, and manage stressors more effectively, as well as helping to develop skills to cope with triggers and prevent relapse, improve relationships, and strengthen communication skills. Types of behavioral therapy can include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Contingency management (CM).
- Community reinforcement approach (CRA).
- Family behavior therapy (FBT).
- Motivational interviewing (MI).
- Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, may be used in conjunction with behavioral therapy to support long-term sobriety by reducing cravings, minimizing or eliminating the effects of other opioids that are ingested, and reducing the risk of overdose.
- Mutual-help and support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, which can help you develop a sober network of peers to motivate and encourage you through difficult situations.
Detoxing from Prescription Opioids
Inpatient or residential medical detox from prescription opioids allows you to withdraw safely in a setting that is monitored by medical staff to ensure your safety.12 Since opioid withdrawal can be difficult and uncomfortable, medications are commonly provided to suppress or eliminate symptoms, control cravings, and make the withdrawal process as comfortable as possible.3, 12 These medications include:3, 4, 12, 13, 14
- Buprenorphine, which is a synthetic partial opioid agonist. It binds to opioid receptors, preventing withdrawal symptoms and cravings while blocking other opioids from causing any effect. It is viewed as having a high safety profile since it doesn’t cause any sedation or euphoria when taken as prescribed and is highly unlikely to cause an overdose. There is a formulation of buprenorphine that is mixed with naloxone (Suboxone) to prevent it from being misused.
- Methadone, which is a long-acting opioid agonist. It binds to opioid receptors and prevents withdrawal symptoms and cravings, while also blocking any other opioids that are taken from causing any effect.
Opioid Addiction Recovery at Oxford Treatment Center
Our addiction treatment facility in Oxford, Mississippi provides all stages of care for opioid recovery, including detoxification, several options for inpatient and outpatient treatment, evidence-based therapies, and even aftercare, support groups, and an alumni program.