Opioids are commonly abused for their rewarding, relaxing, and euphoric effects. For this reason, users face a high potential for abuse and addiction. Opioids come in several forms, such as prescription painkillers and narcotics such as heroin.
Other commonly found opioids and opiates include the following:
- Hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin, Norco)
- Hydromorphone (e.g., Dilaudid)
- Oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet)
- Morphine (e.g., MS Contin)
- Codeine (e.g., Tylenol 3/4)
- Fentanyl and carfentanil
Prescription opioid medications are typically found as a tablet or pill as a product of drug diversion. Also, it can be occasionally found as a liquid or in other forms. Heroin and its more potent cousin, fentanyl, are usually found illicitly as a white powder. Heroin can also present as a dark sticky substance called black tar heroin and can be ingested orally in a pill, snorted, smoked, or injected.
Opioid abuse is closely associated with the development of dependence and tolerance. Dependency occurs as the brain gradually adjusts to a substance’s continued presence and becomes unable to function without it. Tolerance is caused by the brain’s capacity to reduce the response to an intoxicating substance after repeated use. This condition is characterized by an individual’s need for increasing amounts of a drug to achieve the sought-after effects.
Withdrawal symptoms that manifest after discontinuing opioid use are definite indications of chemical dependence. Moreover, when an individual stops using opioids or significantly reduces the dose, they will experience highly unpleasant and perhaps painful symptoms as a result. These uncomfortable withdrawal effects are among the primary catalysts for relapse.
There are many behavioral, emotional, and physical signs of opioid use, including side effects, withdrawal, and overdose symptoms. Some signs depend on the most common administration route and the type of drug used, as well as the intensity of the abuse.
Side Effects of Opioid Use
The following signs and symptoms are among the most common effects that can onset as a result of opioid use:
- An initial rush of euphoria
- Severe itching
- Slowed heart rate
- Profound drowsiness
- Heavy feeling in limbs
- Impaired cognition
People dependent on opioids also frequently have co-occurring mental health issues, which either contributed to the opioid use or are directly the result. Most commonly, these are related to anxiety or clinical depression but can include many types of mood disorders and behaviors, such as the following:
- Agitation and irritability
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Behavioral Signs of Opioid Use
When opioid use becomes a priority, an individual’s entire life may begin to transform, and drug use becomes the primary focus. For this reason, there are likely to be significant changes in a person’s appearance and behavior. An individual in the throes of addiction will most often prioritize drug use over responsibilities and relationships despite the numerous problems it can induce.
The following are common behavioral signs linked to opioid use that can serve as warnings for concerned friends and family that there is an imminent need for professional treatment:
- Adverse behavioral changes
- Concerning changes in social group
- Use of street slang associated with heroin or other opioids
- Loved ones missing money and/or valuables
- Neglect of important obligations, such as family, school, or work
- Unkempt appearance and poor hygiene
- Legal or financial issues
- Denial that there is a problem despite evidence to the contrary
It’s important to note that many signs and symptoms of opioid abuse are related to the administration method. For example, a person who injects heroin or other substances may exhibit marks or sores on various parts of their body at injection sites. They may also have scars, bruises, and abscesses and wear long sleeves or pants to hide evidence of use, even in warm weather.
An individual who smokes opioids might experience frequent coughing and develop other lung complications, such as emphysema or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) later in life. A person who snorts opioids may experience nose bleeds and incur other damage to the nose and surrounding tissue.
Drug paraphernalia is also a hallmark indicator of opioid use. People who administer a drug intravenously will probably have needles and tourniquets lying about, and people who smoke it may have pipes and spoons. Those who ingest pills may have several bottles, hidden or in the trash.
An opioid overdose requires immediate medical intervention. The following are common signs of an overdose related to opioids:
- Blue or purple lips or nails
- Clammy or cold skin
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Muscle spasticity
- Low blood pressure
- Weak or absent pulse
- Extreme drowsiness
If you believe that you or a person you know is experiencing an opioid overdose, you are urged to call 911 immediately or visit the nearest emergency department. If you have Narcan (naloxone) available, administer this drug, as it can reverse an overdose and save an individual’s life.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms manifest from physical dependence in frequent opioid users or after a “binge,” which is an extended period of excessive use. Short-acting opioids, such as heroin, can lead to withdrawal symptoms as soon as 6-12 hours. Longer-acting opioids, including methadone, are associated with a prolonged period before the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms beyond 24 hours in some instances. In all cases, symptoms tend to wane over 5-7 days.
In some cases, the loved ones of those abusing opioids may not know they have been using or the extent of their use. However, in learning to recognize withdrawal symptoms, they may increase their awareness of the problem’s extent.
Common withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid use include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Sleep disturbances
- Anxiety and depression
- Body aches and pains
- Agitation and irritability
- Runny nose
- Nausea and vomiting
Without professional treatment, an individual experiencing withdrawal is likely to relapse. Because of the cruel nature of addiction, they will often do anything to achieve the next high. Behaviors may include stealing prescription medications, money, or other items, prostitution, or dealing drugs themselves.
Opioid Addiction Treatment
The abuse of opioids is a destructive and potentially life-threatening condition that causes a tremendous amount of suffering for both the individual who uses and their loved ones. Fortunately, opioid addiction is treatable through the use of an integrated research-based approach. A comprehensive program should consist of therapeutic services vital for recovery, such as psychotherapy, individual and group counseling, peer group support, experiential activities, mindfulness therapy, and aftercare planning.
Treatment typically begins with detox—a medically-monitored process in which an individual is supervised for several days while their body is cleared of opioids and other toxic substances. After detox, people are encouraged to participate in a partial hospitalization or residential treatment program.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery employs addiction specialists who provide those we treat with the tools, education, and support they direly need to achieve a full recovery, prevent relapse, and enjoy long-lasting wellness and sobriety.