Opioid drugs have been tied to countless overdose deaths and continued health effects. In fact, over 10 million people in the United States misused opioids in 2018 alone.
The most common opioid and opiate drugs that are abused include non-prescription, illegally produced drugs, and prescription opioids bought both illegally and for legitimate medical use.
These common opioids include:
- hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
These substances are generally used by snorting, injecting, smoking, or ingesting orally.
Opioids create effects on the body that depress the central nervous system, numb pain, and create feelings of euphoria.
When taken to excess or abused regularly, opioids can be highly addictive and may cause physical dependence.
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How Do Opioids Affect The Brain?
Although opioids vary in potency, they all work to slow down the central nervous system (CNS) that regulates vital functions.
When the CNS slows down, it impacts:
- blood pressure
- heart rate
Opioids also impact the parts of the brain that control:
- impulse control
- ability to sleep
- desire for food
Opioids and opiates bind to mu-opioid receptors that facilitate the release of dopamine — which gives people a sense of well-being and euphoria.
When a person abuses opioids, it can prevent the body from releasing some natural chemicals, which can lead to drug dependence and addiction.
How Do Opioids Affect The Body?
A person that smokes, snorts or injects an opioid will feel its effects within a few seconds. People that take pills orally, like oxycodone or hydrocodone, will feel effects within a few minutes.
The immediate impact on the body leads to generally slowed responses and reduced pain. A high-potency opioid like fentanyl, or a large dose of heroin, can produce rapid physical effects that may cause life-threatening conditions.
General opioid effects on the body result in:
- extreme relaxation/drowsiness
- itchy, flushed skin
- dry mouth
- constricted pupils (“heroin eyes”)
- slowed, labored breathing
- “nodding” in and out of consciousness (known as the heroin nod)
Short-Term Effects Of Opioid Abuse
The short-term effects of opioid abuse include increased risk of overdose along with damage to a person’s ability to think and function normally.
Upon taking an opioid, the lingering effects on the body and brain can last upwards of several hours.
Immediately after taking an opioid, a person may experience:
- memory problems
- extreme sedation
- dulled senses
Increased Overdose Risk
A person may experience an overdose when they:
- take too much of an opioid drug
- abuse opioids with other CNS depressants like benzodiazepines or alcohol
- accidentally ingest opioids laced with stronger opioids like fentanyl
Some symptoms of an opioid overdose include:
- shallow, labored breathing
- choking or gurgling
- pale/clammy/cold skin
Long-Term Effects Of Opioid Addiction
People that abuse opioids may suffer from a wide range of effects to their direct mental and physical health, and with their ability to function normally. Psychological addiction and physical dependence can result from prolonged opioid use.
Major long-term effects include an increased risk of death stemming from prolonged damage to the heart and major organs.
Death may occur from chronic opioid use due to:
- HIV/AIDS (sharing needles)
- hepatitis C
- heart attack
- endocarditis (heart infection)
- kidney damage
Persistent opioid use can result in chronic conditions that impact daily function that include:
- mood swings
- drug cravings
- skin infections (injecting drugs)
- nasal infections (snorting drugs)
- lung infections (smoking and snorting drugs)
- drug tolerance
Opioid Addiction And Dependence
People that use opioid drugs can become psychologically dependent and physically dependent on the drugs to function normally.
The absence of opioid drugs can cause a range of negative withdrawal symptoms that result from a person’s dependence.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
Opioid withdrawals can begin to occur within hours of a person’s high tapering off.
Withdrawals increase in intensity when a person begins detoxification, which can last upward of a week, depending on the substance they use.
Some symptoms that many people experience when going through withdrawals can include:
- extreme drug cravings
- body aches
- cold flashes
- general dissatisfaction (dysphoria)
In general, opioid withdrawal symptoms can be managed in an inpatient setting with the use of therapeutic drugs like naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine.
Some rehab facilities may use benzodiazepines or anti-anxiety medication to help ward off extreme anxiety or restlessness.
Treatment For Opioid Addiction
Recovery from dependence and addiction to opioids can include a range of treatment options. In general, a combination of individual behavioral therapy, detoxification, and medications like buprenorphine or methadone can be useful.
If you or a loved one is suffering from opioid abuse and addiction, call our helpline for more information on the best course of treatment.
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Published on June 7, 2021
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Addiction Science & Clinical Practice — Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment
- Centers For Disease Control and Prevention — Opioid Overdose
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Opioid Addiction
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Opioids