Causes, Signs & Effects of Opiate Addiction

One of the most commonly cited reasons for visits to emergency rooms, urgent care, and physician’s offices is pain. When pain is related to a chronic condition, such as cancer, and cannot be treated by standard over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, physicians often prescribe opiate narcotics such as Vicodin or OxyContin.

More About Opiates

Learn More About Opiates

While most people who are prescribed these central nervous system depressant analgesics do not have a problem using the drugs for the intended duration, at the frequency prescribed, and in the manner it was prescribed, some people may be drawn to the feelings of overall wellbeing and euphoria caused by these drugs.

Opiate abuse, or prescription painkiller abuse, is the use of these narcotics for non-medical purposes in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor. This type of prescription pain killer abuse is becoming a major problem in the United States and worldwide. People who abuse prescription opiates run the risk of very serious health complications and increasing interpersonal problems, and may abuse these drugs by orally ingesting them, crushing them and snorting them, or liquefying the drug and injecting it into the vein or muscle. While no one goes to the doctor for pain relief with the idea of becoming an addict, people who abuse opiates can quickly develop a tolerance to the drugs, needing more and more to achieve the same blissful feelings. While addiction can slowly take over a person’s life, with the proper detox, rehab, therapies, and support groups, people addicted to prescription narcotics can successfully recover and go on to lead happy, productive, and sober lives.


Statistics on Opiate Addiction

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) uncovered that, next to marijuana, the nonmedical usage of prescription painkillers is the second most common form of illegal drug use. In 2007, SAMSHA reported that 5.2 million individuals – 21% of people over the age of twelve – used a prescription painkiller for nonmedical purposes. The US DEA believes that estimate to be closer to 7 million individuals. In 2006, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported approximately 324,000 emergency room visits that involved abuse of prescription painkillers.

What Causes Opiates Use?

Learn About the Causes and Risk Factors for Opiate Addiction

Addiction is a complex disease characterized by patterns of ongoing drug use despite the negative consequences it may have in a person’s life. It’s believed that addiction is not caused by a single factor, but rather a number of environmental, genetic, and physical factors along with the influence of risk factors. These include:

Genetic: People who have a first-degree relative who struggles with addiction or other mental disorders are at greater risk for developing an addiction. It’s worth noting that not all people who become addicts have a family history of addiction.

Physical: Chronic drug use leads to changes in the structure and functioning of the brain, which leads to physical dependence and cravings for the drug. It also causes withdrawal symptoms when the drug use stops or is cut back dramatically.

Environmental: People who are raised in an environment in which addiction was present are at greater risk for developing an addiction later in life. Additionally, those who begin to use drugs and alcohol at younger ages are at greater risk for becoming an addict later in life.

Risk Factors:

  • Male sex – men are twice as likely to develop problems with drugs and alcohol
  • Peer pressure
  • Co-occurring mental illness
  • Decreased family involvement
  • Loneliness

Signs of Opiates Abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Addiction

Symptoms of opiate addiction and abuse will vary immensely from person to person. Signs and symptoms will depend upon length of addiction, frequency of use, and the level of dependence upon the drugs.

Common symptoms of opiate addiction include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequent trips to the ER complaining about pain ailments
  • “Losing” prescriptions for opioids
  • Sudden financial problems
  • Borrowing or stealing narcotics from friends and family
  • Lying about amount of narcotics used
  • Hiding opiates in various places around the house, car, and office
  • Doctor shopping, or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions for opiates
  • Compulsive use and abuse of opiates despite negative consequences
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Poor judgment
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupillary constriction
  • Sleepiness
  • Analgesia
  • Difficulties urinating
  • Constipation
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Withdrawal symptoms if drug is not available
  • Itching
  • Flushed skin
  • Liver disease
  • Jaundice
  • Coma
  • Death

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Poor judgment
  • Decreased ability to pay attention
  • Short-term memory loss

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Elation
  • Relaxation
  • Anger
  • Addiction
  • Psychological dependence
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation

Effects of Opiates

The Effects of Opiate Addiction

The long-term effects of opiate abuse will vary based upon the length of time the person abuses opiates, route of administration, and frequency of use. Common effects of opiate abuse include:

  • Liver disease
  • Dehydration
  • Abscesses of the skin
  • Infection of cardiac valves
  • Pneumonia
  • Cirrhosis
  • Cardiac dysrhythmias
  • Increased respiratory infections
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Failed attempts to cut down on the drug use
  • Overdose
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawal & Overdose

Learn What Happens During Opiate Withdrawal & Overdose

An opiate overdose occurs when a person uses too many prescription opioids in a short period of time, or combines a number of drugs with opiates. Opiate overdose is an emergency and is responsible for more deaths in the United States than heroin and cocaine combined.

Common symptoms of opiate overdose include:

  • Decreased level of consciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased or slowed respiratory rate
  • Cyanosis of lips and nails
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Coma
  • Death

Withdrawal occurs when an individual has become physically dependent upon a substance and that substance is quickly reduced or discontinued. These symptoms can be highly unpleasant and dangerous, so it’s recommended that anyone who is addicted to opiates detox from the drugs under the supervision of medical personnel.

Common opiate withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Strong drug cravings
  • Respiratory acceleration
  • Goosebumps
  • Lack of appetite
  • All-over body aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Restlessness
  • Malaise
  • Seizures

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opiate Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who are addicted to opiate narcotics are also struggling with dual-diagnosis – or the presence of substance abuse and another mental illness. The most common co-occurring mental illnesses include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Stimulant abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Benzo addiction
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia