Signs, Effects & Symptoms of Opiate Abuse

Understanding the Signs of Opiate Addiction

Understanding the signs of opiate addiction

Opiates are a class of narcotic drugs that are derived from the poppy plant and contain opium or a synthetic derivative of opium. These central nervous system depressants are typically used to alleviate pain or induce sleep. They can be found in prescription form as morphine and codeine and are sold on the streets in the form of heroin. Opiates work by attaching to the opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract, blocking the transmission of pain messages and altering the way in which an individual experiences pain. Additionally, this class of drugs activates the neurotransmitters in the reward system of the brain, creating a feeling of euphoria. When used directly as prescribed, these drugs can be very effective painkillers, however due to the positive psychoactive aspects, opiates are commonly abused. Even if prescribed by a licensed physician, the potential for abuse and addiction is extremely high.

An opiate addiction is defined as an out-of-control need and craving that affects social relationships and daily obligations, such as work or school. Opiates can be found in several forms, including pills, tablets, and liquids. Addicts may crush up and snort the pills, mix them with other drugs and alcohol, or dilute the crushed tablets in water and inject them intravenously. Repeated use can lead to opiate dependence within four to six weeks, while psychological addiction can occur in as little as two weeks. Prolonged opiate abuse may lead to dependence upon opiates, causing the body to be unable to naturally produce opioids in response to a painful stimuli. This means that when an individual stops using opiates it will lead to an increased amount of pain, which is why many abusers relapse.


Statistics for opiate addiction

It is estimated that in the United States there is a prevalence rate of opiate use at about 0.37% in individuals 18 and older. Gender differences have been shown with male prevalence rates around 0.49%, while women have a prevalence rate of only 0.26%. The highest rates of abuse are found in individuals under the age of 30 with a prevalence rate of about 0.29%, and the lowest rates are found in those 64 years of age and older (0.09%).

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & risk factors for opiate addiction

Causes of opiate abuse and addiction can be related to a number of different factors, depending on each individual and any circumstances they may have been exposed to in life.

Genetic: When an individual has a first-degree relative who has struggled with an addiction, they are more likely to develop an addiction themselves. Additionally, temperamental qualities, like novelty-seeking and impulsivity, are considered to be inborn characteristics and have been linked to an increased risk for opiate addiction.

Physical: Individuals who are suffering with chronic health conditions or go through specific surgeries are often prescribed opiates by their physician to help manage the moderate to severe pain. Sometimes, prolonged use of these substances causes an individual to become addicted to these substances as a tolerance toward the drug is built up slowly, leading toward an addiction. Additionally, opiate use alters pathways in the brain and over time leads to addiction.

Environmental: Some men and women experience certain environmental factors that put them at a greater risk for substance use and addiction. Environmental factors such as physical or sexual abuse, lower socioeconomic status, having peers who do drugs, living in violent neighborhoods, or experiencing a traumatic event can all lead to the development of substance abuse and addiction. Additionally, some individuals have difficulty coping with negative moods states and their learned way of coping with those negative feelings is to take an opiate.

Risk factors:

  • Under the age of 30
  • History of mental disease
  • Being male
  • Improper use of medication
  • Unresolved trauma


Symptoms of opiate addiction

There are a number of different signs and symptoms that can help you recognize the presence of opiate use and abuse. Some of these symptoms include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Excessive sleeping
  • Frequent expressions of anger or hostility
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants even in summer to hide track marks
  • Borrowing money without explanation
  • Abandonment of important activities
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Increased energy
  • Decrease in personal hygiene
  • No longer engaging in activities once enjoyed
  • Deceitful or illegal behaviors to obtain additional prescriptions

Physical Symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Cramping
  • Itchy skin
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased appetite
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Drastic weight changes
  • Headaches

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Lowered motivation
  • Ongoing confusion or disorientation
  • Psychosis
  • Increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Improved alertness
  • Over arousal and hyper-vigilance

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Euphoria
  • Depression
  • Irritability


Effects opiate addiction can have

The major long-term effect of long-term opiate use and abuse is physical and mental addiction, due to your body becoming dependent upon the drug to create feelings of happiness and manage pain. While your body does this naturally, after a period of opiate abuse, the body begins to believe that the drug is part of the body’s natural pain relief system, causing withdrawal if the drug is discontinued. Additionally, constant opiate abuse can cause havoc in all areas of an addict’s life. The side effects experienced will depend on individual circumstances, but some of the common effects include:

  • Problems maintaining close personal friendships
  • Strained family relationships
  • Trouble keeping a job or keeping up with school responsibilities
  • Drug related crimes and incarceration
  • Adverse health consequences (lung, liver, and kidney damage, infections in the heart, collapsed veins)
  • Financial problems
  • Death

Withdrawal Effects

Effects opiate withdrawal can have

Withdrawal: Opiate withdrawal sets in shortly after an individual who has become physically dependent on the drug abruptly stops using or when there is an extended period of time between uses. Symptoms usually occur within twelve hours after the last use and can last anywhere from one week to a month. While opiate withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening. Some withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Agitation
  • Low energy
  • Irritability
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

Overdose: It may be difficult to tell if someone who has taken opiates is simply high or  if they are experiencing an overdose. If you are concerned, the best thing to do is to treat the situation like an overdose and get help immediately. Some common signs associated with an overdose include:

  • Awake, but unable to talk
  • Contracted, small pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue – cyanosis
  • Vomiting
  • Limp body
  • Breathing is slowed, erratic, or has stopped
  • Unresponsive to outside stimuli
  • Choking sounds, or snore-like gurgling noise
  • Slow, erratic, or missing pulse
  • Pale and clammy face

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opiate addiction & co-occurring disorders

There are a variety of different mental health disorders that co-occur with opiate abuse and addiction. Some of the more common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Other substance abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about opiate addiction

What are the signs and symptoms of opiate abuse?

Someone who has been abusing opiates, whether prescription or illicit types, may exhibit any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Doctor shopping, or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions for opiates
  • Compulsive use and abuse of opiates despite negative consequences
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Withdrawal symptoms if drug use is discontinued
  • Short-term memory loss

What are the effects of opiate addiction?

Opiate addiction can cause numerous damaging effects, such as the following:

  • Cirrhosis or other liver complications
  • Cardiac problems
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
  • Seizures and strokes

How can you tell if someone is high on opiates?

If someone is high on opiates, he or she may engage in many of the following behaviors:

  • Frequent trips to the doctor for pain issues
  • Sudden financial problems
  • Slurred speech
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Risk-taking behaviors

What are the physical effects of opiate abuse?

There are many types of physical effects that result from opiate abuse, including the following:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Difficulties urinating
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Flushed skin
  • Sleepiness

What is the best way to beat opiate addiction?

The best way to beat an opiate addiction is to get help from a professional treatment center that offers comprehensive, residential programming that is specifically designed to combat opiate addiction. Research options for care in your area that provide the form of support that will help you address your unique needs for recovery.

What are the signs and symptoms of opiate withdrawal?

Unassisted opiate withdrawal is a painful experience, and can include many of the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Nausea, vomiting, chills, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

What do opiate addicts look like?

Opiate addicts come from all walks of life, as substance abuse affects nearly every facet of the population. But a person who has been abusing opiates may exhibit or experience:

  • Irritability
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety and/or depression

Addiction is scary, but Highland Ridge helped me learn how to help my sister and how to help myself. Thank you!

– Brad T.