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Opiate Abuse

  1. Table of ContentsPrint
  2. What Are Opiates?
  3. Signs and Symptoms
  4. Effects of Opiate Abuse
  5. Opiate Abuse Treatment
  6. Opiate Statistics
  7. Teen Opiate Abuse
  8. Resources, Articles, and More Information


What Are Opiates?

Opiates cover a huge variety of drugs, ranging from legal drugs such as fentanyl, codeine, and morphine to illegal drugs such as heroin and opium.

Examples of opiates include:

  • Heroin.
  • Morphine.
  • Oxycodone (trade names include: OxyContin and Percocet).
  • Hydrocodone (trade names include: Vicodin and Lortab).
  • Codeine.
  • Fentanyl.

That sounds better. How about this: "You may hear the term "opioid" in reference to prescription opiates. Technically, the concept of "opiates" encompasses drugs naturally derived from the active narcotic components of the opium poppy, whereas the "opioid" label includes synthetic and semi-synthetic drugs that are modified versions of these opiate building blocks. "Opioid" is usually used in reference to prescription drugs. The terms "opiates" and "opioids" are often used interchangeably, however.

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Opiate addiction is a major issue in the U.S., with prescription opiate addiction being one of the biggest drug problems today. Opiate medications are surprisingly easy to obtain. In fact, an estimated 210 million prescriptions for opiates were dispensed in 2010 alone. Frighteningly, prescription opiate abusers are far more likely to eventually develop a heroin addiction than a non-opiate abuser, as heroin will offer a similar high at a cheaper price.

Any long-term use puts you at risk of addiction, even if the substance is used as prescribed. Many people who use opiates will develop a tolerance to them--a phenomenon that can trigger the cycle of addiction. This means that the same amount of the drug no longer has the same effect as it once did. When this occurs, people routinely take more and more of the substance to elicit the desired response. This ever-increasing dosing places one at great risk for overdose.

Video: The Deadly Truth About Opiates


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Signs and Symptoms

A major indicator of opiate addiction is continued use of the substance even when there are negative repercussions in place for doing so.

Physical signs that someone may be abusing an opiate include:

  • Noticeable elation/euphoria.
  • Marked sedation/drowsiness.
  • Confusion.
  • Constricted pupils.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Intermittent nodding off, or loss of consciousness.
  • Constipation.

Other signs of opiate abuse include:

  • Doctor shopping (getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors).
  • Shifting or dramatically changing moods.
  • Extra pill bottles turning up in the trash.
  • Social withdrawal/isolation.
  • Sudden financial problems.

Withdrawal symptoms can mimic flu symptoms and include:

  • Headache.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Sweating.
  • Fatigue.
  • Anxiety.
  • Inability to sleep.

Effects of Opiate Abuse

Often, the facts about the effects of opiate use are misleading because they may only focus on the short-term impact. For example, opiates often cause vomiting and diarrhea, sedation and delayed reactions in the short term.

What's not often mentioned, however, are the long-term symptoms. Long-term symptoms include:

  • Weakened immune system functioning.
  • Gastric problems ranging from the troublesome (e.g., constipation) to severe (e.g., intestinal ileus, bowel perforation).
  • A plethora of medical issues secondary to intravenous administration (e.g., localized abscesses, embolic events, systemic infection, contraction of bloodborne illnesses).
  • Significant respiratory depression; cumulative hypoxic end-organ injury.

Opiate Abuse Treatment

Opiate recovery typically starts with questions related to the nature of the addiction, such as:

  • How long have you taken the drug?
  • When was the last time you took the drug?
  • How do you usually get your supply?

These questions will help the clinic to decide what treatment approach would be most appropriate.

Three major options for opiate treatment include detoxification (or, simply, detox programs), inpatient rehabilitation, and outpatient therapy.

Detox involves withdrawing from the drug, often slowly with the use of stabilizing and maintenance medication under the supervision of a medical treatment team. If you're detoxing from powerful opiates, you might be prescribed methadone or buprenorphine to make the transition more manageable. Detoxification is completed on an inpatient basis to maintain safety.

Following the transition from detox, most will be referred for continued treatment via residential rehab or outpatient therapy depending on a number of factors. Influencing the decision for treatment type is the individual's level of opiate use, the presence of any home or family supports, amounts of insurance coverage/resources to cover care, as well as taking into account any previous attempts at recovery. Rehab typically lasts anywhere from 30 to 90 days with much of the time being devoted to individual therapy, group therapy, and other activities that help promote recovery from opiates and other substances.

During therapy, you will attend sessions with a therapist or counselor. This will help you to uncover the triggers of your addiction. It helps to impart effective coping skills to resist the temptation of drugs while seeking out helpful supports. It can also help you reconnect with your family and friends.

In conjunction with outpatient treatment, some in recovery may require more support. For someone in recovery from opiate addiction, this might take the form of a halfway house or sober living facility, which gives former users the chance to get sober and rebuild their lives in a safe and supportive environment. Others may simply need a peer support group, such as Narcotics Anonymous.

Opiate Statistics


More than 210 million opiate prescriptions were filled in 2010, with close to 12 million people admitting to abusing these drugs by taking them for non-medical reasons.

  • Per the CDC, certain studies reveal that as many as three out of every four current heroin users were previously prescription opiate abusers.
  • The amount of painkillers prescribed in 2010 was enough to medicate every American 24 hours day a day for one month.
  • Deaths from opiate painkillers outnumber deaths from all illicit drugs combined.

Opiate Abuse Quiz question 5

Teen Opiate Abuse

Teen opiate use tends to be focused on Vicodin and OxyContin, as these are the most relatively easy opiates for many teens obtain. Also, younger users will be more likely to use these substances due to misperceptions regarding risk. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2014:

  • Only 1% of high school seniors used heroin in their lifetime.
  • 3% of high school seniors used OxyContin during the last year.
  • 8% of high school seniors used Vicodin during the last year.

Teens are likely to combine an opiate with alcohol (another depressant), leading to more dangerous effects--including heightened risk of experiencing severe respiratory depression.

Resources, Articles, and More Information

The CDC has a number of articles on drug abuse, particularly with regard to prescription opiate abuse. In addition, NIDA has an article on treatments typically used for opiate addiction.

You can also read the following articles for more information:

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Last updated on July 5, 2019
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