Opioids are compounds extracted from the poppy plant or created to have similar properties to those compounds. They are used to treat pain. When opioids became more popular in the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry reassured doctors that the medications were safe and would not lead to addictions. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center, we have seen how inaccurate this was and how detrimental this false information has been to people who became addicted to opioids. 

The Dangers of Opioids

Opioids are highly addictive, and their increased use in past decades led to a crisis we are still fighting today. The statistics around this category of drugs are terrifying: 

  • 1.6 million people in the United States struggled with opioid use disorder last year.
  • More than 10 million Americans misused prescription opioids last year. 
  • More than 750,000 people have died from opioid overdoses in the U.S. since 1999. 
  • In 2020, 75 percent of overdose deaths in America involved an opioid.

Examples of Opioids

Opioid drugs include prescription medications that might be found in a hospital as well as street drugs. All opioids have the potential to become addictive if they are used for a prolonged period of time or in high volume. Some examples of opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Tramadol
  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone

Signs of Opioid Abuse

People who are misusing opioids often exhibit red flags that could be missed if their loved ones do not know what to look for. These include:

  • Taking prescription opioids at doses higher than prescribed, longer than intended, or in a manner that their doctor did not intend
  • Taking opioids as a preventative for pain, rather than to treat existing pain
  • Noticeable changes in mood or sleep
  • Taking medications from other people or pretending to lose their meds to get more from the pharmacy
  • Getting multiple doctors to prescribe the same medication so that they can build up a stockpile
  • Generally poor decision-making

Signs of Opioid Withdrawal

If a person has developed a dependence or addiction to opioids, they may experience distressing symptoms when they are unable to access them. The signs of opioid withdrawal may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Body aches
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration

Overdose Risk

One of the reasons that opioids are so dangerous is the risk of overdose. The part of the brain that is affected by opioids also regulates breathing. If a person gets too much of an opioid in their system, it can cause them to stop breathing. This is especially likely to occur if a person thinks they are using heroin or morphine but are instead taking fentanyl, which is significantly more potent. When a person is overdosing from an opioid, notable signs are:

  • Tiny pupils
  • Inability to speak or wake up
  • Slowed or stopped heart rate or breathing
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Limp body
  • Blue or purple tint to fingernails or lips
  • Vomiting and gurgling noises

Reversing an Overdose from Opioids

The medication that is available to reverse opioid overdoses is called naloxone or Narcan. It comes in a few different formulations, but the most common is a nasal spray. In Virginia, naloxone is available over the counter and may be purchased in person or online through local retailers, local health departments, healthcare providers, pharmacies, and community services boards.

Facts You Should Know About Naloxone

There is a lot of misinformation around Narcan. It is important to remember these facts:

  • Naloxone works by blocking the effects of opioids, though this effect may only be temporary if the Narcan wears off before the opioid is out of the person’s system. For this reason, it is critically important that anyone who has overdosed on opioids be taken to the hospital for emergency treatment immediately, in case they begin to overdose again.
  • If a person is not overdosing on an opioid, Narcan will not affect them.
  • It is not possible to overdose on naloxone, and it does not have the ability to make a person high.
  • The cost of Narcan varies. It may be available to you at no cost or could run as much as $45 for a 2-pack.
  • People who receive naloxone to reverse an overdose have another opportunity to enter recovery. It is not enabling someone who is overdosing to give them Narcan.
  • People who use opioids are often the ones who witness someone else overdosing, and administering naloxone is simple enough that it can be done while high.

Consequences of Untreated Opioid Use Disorder

Opioid addiction is a treatable condition. With substance abuse counseling, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and talk therapy, many people can enter long-term recovery. If a person persists in using opioids, however, they may experience a wide range of issues:

  • Withdrawal whenever they cannot get opioids
  • Exposure to bloodborne diseases from sharing needles
  • Injection site infections
  • Lung problems like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and asthma
  • Heart problems
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Overdose and death

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we have successfully treated many people who have struggled with opioid use disorder. Our experienced clinical staff use evidence-based treatment that is customized to each guest we serve. This includes mental health treatment, recovery groups, and continuing care.