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What Are Opiates and What Makes Them So Addictive?

What Are Opiates and Why Are They Addictive? | Just Believe Recovery
In This Article

Opiates are alkaloid compounds derived from the opium poppy plant. Opiates are usually classified as Schedule II drugs by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), which indicate that while the drugs are deemed acceptable for some medical reasons, they also are considered to have a high potential for addiction. Moreover, those who are battling with opiate use will be at an increased risk for both chemical and emotional dependence.

Opiates vs. Opioids

Today, the term “opioid” is typically used to describe both opioids and opiates. But technically, the term “opiate” refers to any drug derived directly from the opium poppy plant, such as hydrocodone. While some opiates are employed in the medical industry as a treatment for pain, others, including heroin, are classified as Schedule I drugs as substances. True opiates include morphine, codeine, and thebaine.

Comparatively, the term “opioid” generally refers to any synthetic or semi-synthetic drug that produces effects similar to those of opiates. These substances are either partially or fully human-made, and just like opiates, opioid use ranges from medically-acceptable to illicit.

Opioids include, but are not limited, to the following:

  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Oxymorphone
  • Heroin

Prescription and Illegal Use

What Are Opiates and Why Are They Addictive? | Just Believe Recovery

Many tend to think that schedule I drugs, such as heroin, are often much more dangerous and addictive. Still, a strong case against Schedule II opiates (okay for medical use) has been gradually developing since the turn of the century. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014, nearly two million Americans were reported as being addicted to prescription opioids. These substances have also been involved in the overdose deaths of thousands of people each year.

These concerning statistics have led the medical and mental health communities to reevaluate their treatment strategies. Health providers throughout the U.S. have been taking active steps to curb addiction by recommending non-opioid treatments and offering their patients education on responsible use. Most states have also implemented prescription drug monitoring programs to monitor patients for signs of addiction.

The medical community’s conscious efforts to end prescription drug abuse are praiseworthy, and this collective effort will undoubtedly save lives. However, their efforts will only help a portion of those struggling with opiate abuse. For many, the use of prescription opioids and illicit opiates are implicitly connected.

For instance, a study from 2008 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that heroin-dependent users were nearly four times as likely to report the abuse of prescription opioids in the past year than those who did not use heroin.

Other people may begin using opiates after experimentation with other illicit drugs, such as cocaine. Regardless of how an individual starts abusing opiates/opioids, the risk is the same – physical and emotional dependence, ultimately resulting in addiction.

Signs, Symptoms, and Effects of Opiate Abuse

Because opiates can negatively impact both the body and mind, those abusing them may show physical and mental changes. Among the most common physical effects include the following:

  • Sleepiness and lethargy
  • Numbness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching, rashes, or flushed skin
  • Constipation
  • Slurred speech

Also, as individuals develop a dependency on opiates or opioids, they may begin to withdraw socially, isolate themselves from friends and family, and exhibit a loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed.

They may also present with psychological symptoms, such as the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Indecisiveness
  • Poor judgment
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired memory

If an individual abuses opiates for a prolonged period, they also place their body and mind at risk for permanent damage. The long-term use of these drugs can lead to heart inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Persons abusing illicit opiates may also contract HIV or hepatitis, as illicit opiates are often injected, and needles are frequently unsterilized and shared among drug users.

Psychologically, extended opiate use has been associated with severe mood disorders such as depression, and can also lead to hormone imbalances, which can cause a loss of sex drive libido or infertility. For many, the most tragic consequence of drug use is a high risk of overdose. Per the CDC, each day, more than 115 people in the U.S. will die related to an opioid overdose.

“The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”

More than 70,000 Americans in 2017 died from an overdose related to prescription medications, illicit drugs, or alcohol. Finally, opioid overdoses increased 30% from July 2016-September 2017 in 52 areas and most U.S. states.

Finally, combined drug intoxication is becoming increasingly prevalent. Opiates, as CNS depressants, can profound amplified effects when used in conjunction with other depressants such as benzodiazepines or alcohol. Using opiates in addiction to other psychoactive substances significantly increases the risk of adverse effects, overdose, and death. Due to statistics such as these and the potential for long-term adverse health effects, those suffering from opiate abuse should seek and receive treatment as soon as possible.

Opiate Addiction, Withdrawal, and Treatment

What Are Opiates and Why Are They Addictive? | Just Believe Recovery

Because opiates and opioids tend to cause strong addictions, professional treatment is always recommended. The first step for many individuals is also usually the most uncomfortable – withdrawal. Once a person has become dependent on these drugs, they will find their bodies struggling to maintain balance without their presence.

Withdrawal symptoms will manifest as the opioids are cleared from the system.

Common physical withdrawal symptoms may include the following:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Increased salivation
  • Accelerated respiration
  • Excessive yawning
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Goosebumps or chills
  • Lack of appetite

Withdrawal can also induce psychological stress and include symptoms such as the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Extreme drug cravings
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

While opiate withdrawal can be particularly uncomfortable, it is not usually life-threatening. Even so, medical detox is strongly recommended to reduce the likelihood of relapse and keep the individual safe and supported throughout the process.

Also, health providers can prescribe medications intended to relieve specific symptoms, making the process more comfortable. These drugs can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and help the person avoid relapse.

In addition to medication, behavioral therapy is also part of the foundation for most treatment plans. Persons are allowed to meet with therapists to identify the root causes of the addiction and work to alter thoughts, feelings, and destructive behaviors.

Overcoming Opiate Addiction

Addiction to opiates is a dangerous and potentially life-threatening disease that can and should be comprehensively treated. Just Believe Recovery offers an integrated, research-based approach to addiction treatment that includes behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, group support, and much, much more.

We employ highly-skilled and caring addiction specialists who deliver these services to our clients with compassion and expertise in both partial hospitalization and residential formats. We provide clients with the tools, education, and support they so desperately need to achieve a full recovery and experience sustainable sobriety and long-lasting happiness and well-being.

Recovery from drug addiction is a life-long process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today and discover out how we can help you achieve the fulfilling life you deserve!

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