Morphine is a prescription opioid medication used to treat relatively severe pain 1. Morphine is prescribed in a variety of forms, including liquid solution, tablets, and capsules, and is only intended to be used under the supervision of a medical professional 1. Morphine is highly addictive and is prescribed for only short periods of time—often post-surgery, or in cases where other pain medications are ineffective.
Morphine is extremely similar to heroin—a notoriously addictive opiate.
While morphine effectively reduces feelings of pain, its use is sometimes accompanied by pleasurable effects, which makes it more vulnerable to misuse. This may involve:
- Acquiring the drug without a prescription.
- Using more than prescribed.
- Tampering with the drug (for example, some users may crush up and snort morphine tablets or capsules in an effort to enhance its effects).
Morphine is extremely similar to heroin—a notoriously addictive opiate. In fact, heroin is synthesized from morphine opiate alkaloid precursors 2. When heroin is ingested, it enters the brain, where it is converted back to morphine, and binds to the opioid receptors 2. This causes an intensely pleasurable experience or “high.”
Abusing morphine is dangerous because it can lead to the development of an addiction and may increase the risk of an overdose. Snorting morphine may pose even more dangers since the drug is delivered to the brain relatively more quickly than if swallowed 3. Snorting opioids like morphine can also do damage to the nose 3.
Is Snorting Morphine Dangerous?
Yes, snorting morphine is dangerous and can have serious effects on the brain and body. Tampering with morphine by crushing and snorting it can lead to exaggerated effects, because a greater concentration of the opioid is delivered in a shorter period than would occur if the medication was taken orally 3. The rapid and intense high associated with snorting may increase a user’s risk for abuse and addiction 3.
People who continually abuse morphine will likely develop a tolerance to the drug, where they will require more and more of the drug to experience the effects that once came with lower doses. This may further increase the chances of overdose as the user increases the amount of drug used to counteract this phenomenon of diminishing effects.
Repeatedly snorting a highly addictive drug like morphine can easily give rise to physical dependence 2. Once a user becomes physically dependent—meaning they need to drug to feel and function normally—they will face a long list of withdrawal symptoms and will often be unwilling or unable to stop using due to the severe discomfort of these symptoms.
Snorting morphine can be an intensely pleasurable experience that contributes to the development of compulsive patterns of use and drug cravings. In some cases, people may switch from a drug like morphine to heroin. This is common because painkillers tend to be much more expensive and harder to get than heroin.
In fact, between 2002 and 2012, heroin initiation was 19 times more common among people who had abused prescription opioid painkillers like morphine in the past than people who had not previously abused painkillers 5.
Side Effects of Snorting Morphine
Side effects of morphine use may include 1:
- Stomach pain.
- Abdominal cramps.
- Dry mouth.
- Constricted pupils.
- Urinary retention.
- Severe itching.
- Mood instability.
In some cases, morphine side effects may be severe and should be evaluated by a physician. Relatively more severe side effects may involve 1:
Risks of Snorting Morphine
Snorting drugs like morphine can pose additional dangers, such as 3:
- Nasal pain.
- Nasal damage.
- Perforations, or holes, in the nose or palate.
- Fungal infections of the respiratory tract.
- Cyanosis, or bluish tint to the skin.
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, sweating, shivering, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
- Erectile dysfunction.
- Muscle stiffness or twitching.
- Loss of coordination.
- Extreme fatigue.
- Changes in heart rate.
- Chest pains.
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Can Snorting Morphine Cause an Overdose?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that today nearly half of all fatal drug overdoses involve the abuse of prescription opioids 10. In 2015, painkiller abuse led to more than 15,000 overdose deaths 10.
Yes, misusing morphine by snorting it can increase overdose risk 4. While morphine is effective at treating pain and relatively safe when taken exactly as prescribed, misusing morphine can result in a number of harmful health consequences, including death. Overdosing on morphine can cause respiratory depression, a potentially fatal condition that involves slowed or delayed breathing 4.
According to the World Health Organization, overdose is most likely among those who are physically dependent on opioids 6. Other people at high risk of suffering a morphine overdose include those who 6:
- Take large doses of morphine.
- Take more morphine than prescribed or in ways other than prescribed.
- Combine morphine with alcohol or other drugs, especially benzodiazepines 1.
- Have concurrent medical or mental health conditions like depression, HIV, or liver or lung disease.
- Return to morphine use after a period of abstinence, during which opioid tolerance has decreased.
A person experiencing a morphine overdose may display one or more of the following symptoms 1:
- Significantly slowed, shallow, or irregular breathing.
- Profound drowsiness.
- Severe nausea and copious vomiting.
- Tiny, constricted pupils.
- Cold and clammy skin.
- Blurry vision.
- Muscle weakness.
- Loss of consciousness and fainting.
If you witness a morphine overdose, call 911 immediately. Untreated overdoses can lead to harmful consequences and even death.
Signs That Someone Is Addicted to Morphine
Morphine is a highly addictive drug because of its intensely pleasurable high and propensity to lead to the development of physical dependence. Morphine users may experience some degree of physiologic drug dependence even when taking it as prescribed 4.
The diagnosis of morphine addiction (technically, an opioid use disorder) can be made after an individual using the drug displays at least two of the following signs 7:
- Using larger amounts of morphine over time.
- Difficulty cutting down.
- Spending a long time acquiring, using, or recovering from morphine.
- Urges to use more morphine.
- Failing to take care of responsibilities at home, work, or school as a result of continued morphine use.
- Continuing to use morphine despite relationship problems.
- Giving up important activities because of morphine.
- Using morphine in dangerous situations.
- Continuing to use morphine despite physical or psychological problems caused or made worse by the drug.
- Requiring more morphine to achieve the same effects (i.e., tolerance).
- Going into withdrawal when not using morphine.
Other signs that a person is specifically snorting morphine as their chosen route of abuse may include:
- Frequent sniffling, runny nose, or nose rubbing.
- White powder residue on personal items.
- Paraphernalia like prescription bottles, straws, and razors.
Getting Help for Morphine Addiction
People who are addicted to morphine may find it especially difficult to quit, even if they experience ongoing negative consequences to their health and relationships. Trying to quit morphine can lead to painful withdrawal symptoms like muscle aches, sweating, runny nose, cramps, nausea, and vomiting 8.
The discomfort caused by withdrawal is often accompanied by strong cravings—both factors combine to increase the risk of a relapse. Fortunately, treatment programs exist to help people through various stages of the recovery process:
- Professional detox provides short-term treatment interventions for people experiencing morphine withdrawal. The goal of detox is to help people safely and comfortably make it through the withdrawal process to later begin ongoing addiction treatment from a stable starting point. Detox facilities are staffed with medical professionals who monitor and treat withdrawal symptoms. Once detox is complete, recovering individuals are encouraged to continue their treatment in an inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment program.
- Inpatient treatment programs offer a drug-free environment for those in recovery to live while getting care. In addition to providing a safe, supervised residential setting, these programs offer intensive therapy services aimed at helping people understand their addictions better and learning healthy coping skills to maintain sobriety.
- Outpatient treatment programs offer one or more weekly therapy sessions to help people maintain their sobriety while still having time outside of treatment to work, go to school, and attend to other responsibilities.
Behavioral therapy is an effective form of treatment that may be conducted in a group, individual, or family format. It is an integral part of both inpatient and outpatient treatment protocols. Behavioral therapy is effective at helping people 4:
- Change negative beliefs and behaviors.
- Learn tools for managing urges and avoiding triggers.
- Improve relationships with family and friends.
- Improve functioning at work, home, and school.
Medications may be helpful for morphine addiction even after detox is complete to help maintain sobriety. As part of a medication-assisted treatment approach, medications are used in combination with therapy, rather than alone. Medications to help manage opioid dependence include 9:
- Methadone—A long-acting opioid agonist medication that activates the same receptors as morphine, with a less pronounced, euphoric high. Methadone can reduce urges to use other opioids and prevent withdrawal.
- Naltrexone—An oral medication that blocks the opioid receptors in the brain and prevents people from experiencing a pleasurable high if opioids are abused. Naltrexone is also available as a monthly injection under the brand name Vivitrol.
- Buprenorphine—A medication that helps to reduce cravings for opioids without producing a marked high and with less risk of dangerous effects such as profound respiratory depression. Suboxone, a commonly used medication in the treatment of opioid abuse, combines buprenorphine with naloxone, an opioid antagonist that blocks opioid activity at the receptor level and is included in this special formulation to deter attempts at misusing the drug.
- Probuphine—A form of buprenorphine that is implanted into the skin of the upper arm and delivers the medication steadily for up to 6 months at a time.
Recovery groups offer free support for people in any stage of recovery. Support groups are different from addiction treatment programs. They are run by other people in recovery and have no imposed limit on the duration of time that individuals may attend—program participation may be lifelong. Two popular recovery groups for morphine addiction are Narcotics Anonymous (NA), a 12-step group that connects members with a sober support network, and SMART Recovery, a non-12-step approach that emphasizes self-empowerment and teaching tools to maintain sobriety.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2016). Morphine.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). DrugFacts: Heroin.
- Gasior, M., Bond, M. & Malamut, R. (2016). Routes of abuse of prescription opioid analgesics: a review and assessment of the potential impact of abuse-deterrent formulations. Postgraduate Medicine, 128(1), 85–96.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Research report series: Misuse of prescription drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Research report series: Prescription opioids and heroin.
- World Health Organization. (2014). Information sheet on opioid overdose.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2016). Opiate and opioid withdrawal.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016) Prescription Opioid Overdose Data.