Opioid Abuse & Addiction Symptoms, Causes, Signs & Side Effects

One of the most common reasons individuals seek medical attention is pain. When pain cannot be managed by over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, doctors may prescribe a prescription painkiller, an opioid narcotic.

Understanding Opioid Abuse

Learn More About Opioid Addiction

Certain opiate narcotics are combined with other painkillers in order to augment the effects of the drugs – a process called “drug synergy.” Narcotics are excellent analgesics able to manage both chronic and acute pain conditions and when used as prescribed, it is unlikely that an individual will become addicted or dependent upon them.

Some individuals find that in addition to proper pain management, narcotics provide them with a feeling of well-being and joy so they begin to use narcotic opioids to cope with life stressors. Usage of a prescription painkiller for nonmedical purposes is known as prescription drug abuse and is a growing problem in the US.

Individuals who become physically dependent upon opiate narcotics will begin to require more and more of the opiate to achieve the same blissful feelings for longer periods than intended. These people may crave the narcotic and experience withdrawal symptoms if the drug is not available. No matter the negative effects, someone who is addicted to prescription narcotics will continue to compulsively use and abuse the drugs.

Many individuals who are addicted to opiates will use the drugs with other substances in order to achieve a greater high. Some people mix opiates with other downers such as benzodiazepines or alcohol, which can increase the risk for respiratory complications, coma, and death. Others mix opiates with stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamines in order to level out the unpleasant side effects of stimulants.

Individuals who become addicted to opioid painkillers may have trouble quitting the drug without proper rehab and therapies as they have come to rely on the drug to relieve unpleasant stressors. Proper therapy and rehab can help addicted individuals learn how to live a sober, happy life free from narcotics.


Statistics of Opioid Addiction

The United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) have discovered that next to marijuana, the nonmedical usage of prescription painkillers is the second most common form of illegal drug use. In 2007, SAMSHA reported that 5.2 million individuals – 21% of people over the age of twelve – used a prescription painkiller for nonmedical purposes. The US DEA believes that estimate to be closer to 7 million individuals.

In 2006, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that about 324,000 emergency room visits involved painkillers.


Causes and Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse

There is no single root cause for the development of addiction in certain individuals, rather addiction is believed to be a disease caused by multiple factors working together. Some of the causes for opiate addiction include:

Genetic: Individuals who are born into families where addiction is present are at a greater risk for developing an addiction later in life.

Brain Chemistry: It’s been suggested that certain individuals are born lacking in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which controls feelings of pleasure. These individuals may turn to opiate narcotics to stimulate the release of dopamine into the body, producing feelings of joy and happiness.

Environmental: Those who are born into a chaotic home environment are at greater risk for developing an addiction as a means of coping with the stresses of life. This is especially true if the parents or guardian struggle with addiction. In addition, individuals who begin to abuse drugs at an earlier age are more likely to develop an addiction to drugs, such as opiates, later in life.

Psychological: Many individuals struggle through life suffering from an undiagnosed or undertreated mental illness. In order to combat the symptoms of the mental illness, individuals may turn to drugs such as opiates in order to manage the unpleasant feelings. This, in turn, can lead to the development of a substance addiction and worsening of mental health symptoms.


Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Abuse

Symptoms of opiate addiction and abuse will vary tremendously from person to person. Symptoms will depend upon length of addiction, frequency of use, and the level of dependence upon the drugs. Common symptoms of opiate addiction include:

Mood symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Elation
  • Relaxation
  • Anger

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequent trips to the ER complaining about pain ailments
  • “Losing” prescriptions for opioids
  • Sudden financial problems
  • Borrowing or stealing narcotics from friends and family
  • Lying about amount of narcotics used
  • Hiding opiates in various places around the house, car, and office
  • Doctor shopping, or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions for opiates
  • Compulsive use and abuse of opiates despite negative consequences
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Poor judgment
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Constipation
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupillary constriction
  • Sleepiness
  • Difficulties urinating
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Withdrawal symptoms if drug is not available
  • Itching
  • Flushed skin
  • Liver disease
  • Jaundice
  • Coma
  • Death

Psychological symptoms:

  • Addiction
  • Confusion
  • Psychological dependence
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia


Effects of Opioid Abuse

The long-term effects of opiate abuse will vary tremendously based upon the length of time an individual uses opiates, the type of opiate abused, and the frequency of use. Common effects of opiate abuse include:

  • Liver disease
  • Dehydration
  • Abscesses of the skin
  • Infection of cardiac valves
  • Pneumonia
  • Cirrhosis
  • Cardiac dysrhythmias
  • Increased respiratory infections
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Failed attempts to cut down on the drug use
  • Overdose
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Coma
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Learn About Co-Occurring Disorders

Many individuals who struggle with addiction to opiate narcotics are also coping with an undertreated or unmanaged mental illness. The most common co-occurring mental illnesses include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Stimulant abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Benzo addiction
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose for Opioid Abuse

Withdrawal occurs when an individual has become physically dependent upon a substance and that substance is quickly reduced or discontinued. These symptoms can be highly unpleasant and dangerous, so it’s recommended that anyone who is addicted to opiates detox from the drugs under the supervision of medical personnel. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Strong drug cravings
  • Respiratory acceleration
  • Goosebumps
  • Lack of appetite
  • All-over body aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Restlessness
  • Malaise
  • Seizures

My husband overcame his opioid addiction thanks to Park Royal Hospital. Their amazing treatment team gave him the confidence to make it through detox and find a better life in sobriety.

– Janet W