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Opioid Effects: Short- and Long-Term and Treatment

Opioid use, misuse, and addiction come with a variety of side effects. In this article you’ll learn about opioids and their short- and long-term effects.

We’ll also discuss opioid addiction and overdose, effects of injection drug use, opioid withdrawal symptoms, and how to find help for opioid addiction.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers such as oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine; synthetic opioids including fentanyl; and the illegal drug heroin.1,2 

Opioid Uses

Prescription opioids are prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery or injury or for health conditions causing chronic pain, including cancer.3,4

Prescription opioids are extremely useful in the management of pain, but they can have a dark side. They are among the most misused drugs in the United States as they’re easy to get hold of, readily prescribed, and very addictive—a dangerous combination.

Opioid Addiction

People who use prescription opioids over an extended period of time may develop an altered physiological state where they become physically dependent on them. Dependence on opioids is revealed when the user experiences withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs.5 The individual will need to stop using opioids gradually in order to avoid withdrawal discomfort.5

One of the best-known side effects of prescription opioids is addiction, and it’s surprisingly easy to become addicted without realizing it. Addiction is a disease, but it can result from taking drugs repeatedly, just like dependence.5 An addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, occurs when a person cannot stop using a drug despite negative consequences impacting health, relationships, employment, and finances.6,7 Opioid addiction is identified as a compulsive urge to use the drugs even when they are not required medically.7 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1 in 4 patients receiving long-term opioid treatment struggles with opioid addiction.4

Opioid Side Effects

The biggest advantage to opioids is that they’re very effective at controlling pain, and they’re relatively cheap. Prescription opioids can relieve pain and lead to feelings of relaxation and euphoria, but they may also have negative effects that can be short- and/or long-term.

Short-Term Effects of Opioids

Common short-term side effects of opioid use include:3,8

  • Drowsiness.
  • Confusion.
  • Nausea.
  • Constipation.
  • Slowed breathing/respiratory depression.

Long-Term Effects of Opioids

Hypoxia (reduced levels of oxygen in your body tissues) can lead to both short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects—including coma, permanent brain damage, and death.3,8 In addition to these side effects, the misuse of prescription opioids may also lead to long-term effects such as physical dependence and addiction.4,5

Effects of Injection Drug Use

Naturally, taking opiates in nonstandard ways increases their 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 prescription opioid misusers 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.9

A number of chronic infections, such as viral hepatitis and HIV, can be contracted as a result of unsterile needle techniques in conjunction with the intravenous use of several opioids.10-12 Recently, increased rates of contraction of HIV have been noted in association with the intravenous use of prescription medications such as Opana, or oxymorphone.10

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.

Opioid Overdose

In 2021, 80,411 people died in the United States from overdosing on opioids, compared to 21,089 in 2010 and 47,600 people in 2017. Of the nearly 107,000 total drug overdoses that occurred in 2021, 75% involved an opioid.12-14

If you are concerned that someone is experiencing an overdose, immediately call 911. This will allow for medical attention that may save a life. Medical personnel can administer naloxone, a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose if given immediately.8

Common signs of opioid overdose include:8,15

  • Choking or gurgling sounds.
  • Discolored lips and nails.
  • Limp body.
  • Losing consciousness.
  • Skin that is cold and/or clammy.
  • Sleepiness.
  • Slowed or stopped breathing.
  • Small “pinpoint pupils.”

Opioid Withdrawal: Symptoms and Treatment

Opioid withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable. Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:8

  • Muscle and bone pain.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Cold flashes.
  • Uncontrollable leg movements.
  • Severe cravings.

Successful treatment often includes supervised detox to maximize comfort and safety during the withdrawal process and minimize the risk of opioid relapse. One strategy to help with withdrawal is medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which includes medication and counseling.5 There are several medications that can help treat opioid disorders, including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.These medications help patients manage their opioid use disorders. In addition to the possible use of medication, patients should also attend counseling sessions and undergo therapy to discuss the roots of their drug misuse. Behavioral therapies for prescription opioid misuse can help people adjust their attitudes and behaviors connected to drug use, improve their health and life skills, and continue additional forms of treatment (such as medication).8

Finding Opioid Addiction Treatment Near Me

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to opioids, help is available and recovery is possible. Professional addiction treatment can start anyone battling a substance use disorder on the path to a healthier and happier life. Rehab programs are located throughout the U.S., and many offer specialized treatment that can cater to individual needs.

You can use SAMHSA’s Find Treatment tool to search for treatment centers. Many state government websites will also provide local drug and alcohol resources to those in need. To find your state government’s website, do a web search for your state name and ‘.gov.’ Once your state website is located, substance use resources shouldn’t be hard to find, and they should provide further phone contacts for your assistance.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted facilities across the country. To learn more about rehab programs and treatment options with AAC, contact one of our caring admissions navigators free at . Our professional and caring admissions navigators are here for you 24/7.

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