Opioid Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Opioids are a category of powerful substances, some of which have legitimate medical uses, and others of which are used primarily by individuals who are in search of a recreational high.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

Learn about opioids and substance abuse

The category of opioids includes organic substances such as opium and morphine; semi-synthetic substances such as heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone; and synthetic substances such as fentanyl and meperidine. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the active ingredients in several popular prescription painkillers, including OxyContin and Vicodin, while morphine and fentanyl are most commonly used in hospitals for individuals who are experience significant pain related to injury, surgery, or a disease such as cancer.

Any use of an opioid can expose a person to the risk of addiction, which is known clinically as opioid use disorder. However, this risk is far greater among individuals who are abusing the drugs either recreationally or in misguided attempts to self-medicate.

When a person uses an opioid for an extended period of time, his or her body will develop tolerance, which means that he or she will need to ingest larger or more potent doses in order to experience the desired effect. Because opioids interact with the parts of the central nervous system that are responsible for functions such as heart rate or respiration, taking too large or too powerful of a dose can have a cataclysmic effect, possibly leading to irreversible damage or even death.

In addition to tolerance, a person who becomes addicted to an opioid will also experience withdrawal symptoms. This means that when he or she stops using the drug, his or her body will react with a series of distressing physical and psychological symptoms. Withdrawal can prevent a person from stopping his or her abuse of opioids long enough to start receiving treatment at a comprehensive center or clinic.

The dangers of opioid abuse and the difficulty of ending this self-defeating behavior without professional help are two of the many reasons why receiving treatment at a hospital, center, or clinic is so important. With proper professional treatment, adolescents and adults whose lives have been impacted by opioid use disorder can learn to overcome the compulsion to ingest these dangerous substances and develop the skills to support long-term recovery.


Opioid addiction statistics

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 650,000 prescriptions for medications that contain opioids are filled every day in the United States. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) estimates that about 2.6 million Americans ages 12 and above are currently struggling with an opioid use disorder involving either prescription opioids or heroin. ASAM has also reported that in 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of opioid abuse.  The American Psychiatric Association (APA) reports that opioid abuse is more common among men than among women. APA data indicates that the rate of heroin abuse among men is about three times as high as among women; for other opioids, including prescription medications, the rate of a

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for opioid addiction

A person’s risk for developing opioid use disorder may be influenced by a variety of factors, including the following:

Genetic: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) notes that genetics play a particularly important role, both directly and indirectly, in determining whether or not a person will abuse and become addicted to opioids.  For example, individuals who have a family history of opioid use disorder are at increased risk for the disorder, as are those who inherit certain personality traits.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Having a family history of substance abuse and chemical dependency
  • Having a personal history of substance abuse
  • Associating with peers who abuse opioids or other drugs
  • Novelty-seeking personality
  • Impulsivity

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of opioid addiction

A person who is abusing or who has become dependent on opioids may exhibit a wide range of signs and symptoms depending upon several personal factors. The following are among the more common indicators that a person may be struggling with opioid abuse:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Using opioids even when it is clearly dangerous to do so, such as prior to operating a motor vehicle or in combination with alcohol or other drugs
  • Trying but being incapable of ending one’s opioid abuse
  • Attempting to borrow or steal opioids that have been prescribed to someone else
  • Prioritizing opioid acquisition and abuse over personal and/or professional obligations
  • Withdrawing from family and friends, and associating with new friends or peers
  • Lying, secrecy, or deception regarding actions and whereabouts

Physical symptoms:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slurring speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Change in appetite and resultant change in weight
  • Constricted pupils
  • Psychomotor agitation and retardation

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems with concentration or focus
  • Impaired memory
  • Poor judgment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • No longer interested in activities that were once important to the individual
  • Mood swings
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Anxiety and paranoia


Effects of opioid addiction

If a person fails to get effective professional treatment for an opioid abuse problem, he or she may experience a variety of negative effects and outcomes, including but not necessarily limited to the following:

  • Family problems
  • Strained or ruined friendships and other relationships
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Heart problems
  • Onset or worsening of mental health problems
  • Problems at work, including job loss and unemployment
  • Problems in school, including failure and expulsion
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Financial devastation
  • Homelessness
  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

Co-Occurring Disorders

Opioid addiction and co-occurring disorders

Adolescents and adults who struggle with opioid use disorder may be at increased risk for the following co-occurring mental health disorders:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of opioid withdrawal and overdose

Effects of opioid withdrawal: Attempting to stop abusing opioids once a person has become dependent upon these substances can trigger the onset of several distressing symptoms, including the following:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Intense abdominal cramping
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Agitation
  • Dysphoria

Effects of opioid overdose: Anyone who exhibits the following signs after abusing an opioid may have overdosed on the drug, and should be brought to the immediate attention of an emergency responder or another qualified healthcare provider:

  • Slurring speech
  • Disorientation
  • Slow, shallow, or labored breathing
  • Skin is cold and clammy to the touch
  • Bluish tint near fingertips and lips
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure

I’ve been through several programs in my life, but the counselors at Longleaf were different. I truly believe I’ve grown and will be able to overcome my issues thanks to their guidance.

– Anonymous Patient
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