The Effects of Opiate Use

  1. Table of ContentsPrint
  2. Are Opiates Harmful?
  3. Short-Term Effects of Opiates
  4. Side Effects
  5. Long-Term Effects of Opiates
  6. Opiate Dependence
  7. Opiates Withdrawal Treatment


Are Opiates Harmful?

Opiates are among the most abused drugs in the United States as they're easy to get hold of, readily prescribed, and very addictive--a dangerous combination.

Opiates include numerous substances such as heroin, morphine, and thebaine, but they all have the same method of action. These highly addictive substances are called opiates because they are derived from chemicals found in the sap of the opium poppy - one of the biggest moneymakers in the Afghan mountains. Prescription opioids, which have essentially the same mechanism of action as natural opiates, include drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl.

Opiates are extremely useful in the management of pain and for cough suppression in the case of severe lung conditions, but they do have a dark side. They are among the most abused drugs in the United States as they're easy to get hold of, readily prescribed, and very addictive--a dangerous combination.

Opiate abuse takes its toll on almost every major body system.
View our infographic to see the true dangers of these drugs.

Opiate Effects question 1

Opiate Effects question 2

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Short-Term Effects of Opiates

The biggest advantage to opiates is that they're very effective at controlling pain, and they're relatively cheap. Morphine has been around for over a century, yet it still is used regularly to control pain.

Opiates usually produce a "high" of some type; the faster-acting they are, the more intense the high they produce. Heroin produces a very intense high thanks to its very short duration of action: its half-life is between 15 and 30 minutes. Morphine is much longer, lasting from 4 to 6 hours.

The short-term effects of opiate use can include:

  • Feelings of euphoria.
  • Pain relief.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Sedation.

Opiates and Dopamine

Opiates initiate the release of a cascade of dopamine in the brain, which creates feelings of pleasure and reinforces the behavior, i.e., ingestion of the substance. See below:

Opiate Effects at the Synapse Level

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Side Effects

Because of the intense high produced by the interaction of several opiates and the brain, the drugs remain extremely addictive, sometimes causing measurable symptoms of addiction in under three days.

The side effects of opiate abuse are fairly varied and may include:

  • Drowsiness.
  • Lethargy.
  • Paranoia.
  • Respiratory depression.
  • Nausea.

Because of the intense high produced by the interaction of several opiates and the brain, the drugs remain extremely addictive, sometimes causing measurable symptoms of addiction in under three days.

Opiates also cause your irises to relax, creating pinprick or pinpoint pupils. This is one of the big giveaways of opiate abuse, and it's hard to disguise.

Because of the way opiates often reduce your reaction times, driving while under the influence of opiates is often dealt with harshly, and you could lose your freedom along with your license. In some states, the mere presence of an illegal drug is enough to determine that you were driving while intoxicated, although the federal government is pushing states toward defined limits, just like with alcohol.

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Long-Term Effects of Opiates

Long-term effects can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Abdominal distention and bloating.
  • Constipation.
  • Liver damage (especially prevalent in abuse of drugs that combine opiates with acetaminophen).
  • Brain damage due to hypoxia, resulting from respiratory depression.
  • Development of tolerance.
  • Dependence.

Effects of Injection Drug Use

Naturally, taking the drug in nonstandard ways increases its side effects. The body is not, for example, designed to cope with a load of powder floating around in the bloodstream, but a number of addicts grind up tablets, mix them with water or alcohol, and inject them. This can lead to heart problems, including long-term heart infections, as well as pulmonary embolisms. If the injection site gets infected, it can cause gangrene in the local area - the flesh dies and then rots. If the wound gets infected, it can cause a massive blood infection, which can be life-threatening.

A number of chronic infections such as viral hepatitis and HIV can be contracted as a result of unsterile needle techniques in conjunction with intravenous use of several opiates. The classic example would be heroin. Compared to the general population, intravenous heroin abusers have a much higher rate of contraction of HIV and other blood borne illnesses. More recently, however, rates of contraction of HIV have been noted in association with IV use of prescription medications such as Opana, or oxymorphone. Indeed, in 2015, the rate of HIV transmission in a population of IV Opana abusers in the state of Indiana was so high, that the Indiana state governor reversed one of his drug policies to implement an emergency needle exchange program in an attempt to reverse the alarming trend of newly infected people.

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Video: How to Overcome an Opiate Addiction

The following short video provides information about getting help for an opiate addiction.

Credit: Howcast

Opiate Dependence

The best-known side effect of opiates is addiction, and it's surprisingly easy to become addicted without realizing it.

Even codeine, a commonly prescribed painkiller, is addictive. Opiate dependence tends to be diagnosed when you cannot get off the drug despite the negative consequences of being on the drug. You might be stealing drugs or money to fund your habit. Your relationships might be breaking down. You could also find that your work performance has suffered, resulting in financial problems.

If you cannot get off the drug, suffer withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of using, and compulsively use despite harm to your health and life, you are dependent on the drug and may need help to stop. To find a program and being your recovery, call 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? today.

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Opiates Withdrawal Treatment

woman-in-group-therapy-for-opioid-addictionOpiate withdrawal can be quite uncomfortable and includes intense flu-like symptoms. Successful treatment often includes supervised detox to maximize comfort and safety during the withdrawal process and minimize the risk of relapse.

As opiate dependency can be quite tenacious, many recommend three months as the minimum amount of time it takes to get someone off the drug and into recovery - for some, it can require even longer periods of treatment.

Often a replacement opiate is prescribed, such as buprenorphine or methadone, to create better stability during detox. You'll either go to a clinic each day to get your dose, or it will be administered in a residential rehab clinic. Over time, the dose will be lowered, and you may experience a few withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms, however, are minor when compared to the massive onset of withdrawal that occurs when you go cold turkey. During this time, you'll need to attend counseling sessions and undergo therapy to discuss the reasons for your drug abuse.

It's advisable to join a peer support group, though, as the support of others can help you avoid triggers and prevent relapse. In time, you might find that you're the sponsor to someone who is in exactly the same situation as you once were. To help an Opiate addict, call our 24/7 helpline at 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? for more information.