What Are Opiates and Why Are They So Addictive? – Opiates are substances derived from alkaloid compounds in the opium poppy plant. Opiates are generally classified as Schedule II drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration, indicating that while the drugs are considered acceptable for some medical purposes, they also have a very high potential for addiction.
Moreover, those who struggle with opiate use will be at risk for both physiological and psychological dependence on the drug.
Opiates vs. Opioids
Today, the term “opioid” is commonly used to describe both opiates and opioids. But technically, however, the term “opiate” refers to any drug derived directly from the opium poppy plant. While some opiates are used in the medical industry as a treatment for pain, others, such as heroin, are considered Schedule I drugs, or drugs with no acceptable safety use.
Comparatively, the term “opioid” refers to any synthetic drug that produces a similar effect to an opiate. These drugs are either partially or fully human-made. Much like opiates, opioid use ranges from medically acceptable to illicit.
Opioid drugs include but are not limited to the following:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin)
Prescription and Illicit Use
While Schedule I drugs such as heroin are often considered more dangerous or addictive, a case against Schedule II opiates has been gradually developing since the turn of the century. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014, nearly two million Americans were addicted to prescription opioids. Prescription opioids are also involved in the overdose deaths of thousands of people each year.
These disturbing statistics have led the medical community to rethink their treatment strategies. Health providers nationwide have been taking active steps to curb addiction by recommending non-opioid treatments, offering their patients education on responsible use, and implementing prescription drug monitoring programs to watch for signs of addiction.
The medical community’s deliberate efforts to end prescription opiate abuse is commendable, and this concerted effort will undoubtedly save lives. But their efforts, however, will only help a portion of people struggling with opiate abuse. For many, use of prescription opioids and illicit opiates are implicitly connected.
For example, A 2008 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence revealed that those who were dependent on heroin were nearly four times more likely to report the misuse of prescription opioids in the past year than those who were not heroin users.
Other people may start using opiates after experimentation with other illicit drugs, such as cocaine. Regardless of how a person starts abusing opiates, the risk is the same – physiological and psychological dependence, ultimately leading to addiction.
Signs, Symptoms, and Effects of Opiate Abuse
Because opiates can adversely impact both the body and mind, those abusing them may exhibit physical and mental changes. Among the most common physical effects are:
- Sleepiness and lethargy
- Shallow breathing
- Small pupils
- Itching, rashes, or flushed skin
- Slurred speech
Also, as a person develops a psychological dependency on opiates or opioids, they may begin to isolate themselves from friends and family and show reduced interest in activities they once enjoyed.
They may also exhibit psychological symptoms, such as:
- Confusion and indecisiveness
- Poor judgment
- Poor concentration
- Memory problems
If a person misuses opiates for too long, they also place their body and mind at risk for severe, irreversible damage. The long-term use of opiates can result in heart inflammation, which leads to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Persons abusing illicit opiates may also find themselves at risk of infection and HIV or hepatitis, as illicit opiates are often injected and needles are frequently shared among drug users.
Psychologically, prolonged opiate use has been associated with mood disorders such as depression, and can also lead to hormone imbalances, which can reduce libido or cause infertility.
For many, the most frightening consequence of drug use is the risk of overdose. Per the CDC, every day, more than 115 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids:
“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.”
In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died from an overdose involving prescription medications, illicit drugs, or alcohol. Finally, opioid overdoses increased 30% from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas and 45 states.
Finally, combined drug intoxication is becoming more and more common. Opiates, as central nervous system depressants, produce compounded effects when used in combination with other depressants such as benzodiazepines or alcohol. Using opiates alongside other psychoactive substances dramatically increases the risk of adverse effects and overdose.
Due to statistics such as these as well as the potential for sustained, adverse health effects, there is a genuine sense of urgency for those struggling with opiate abuse to receive treatment as soon as possible.
Opiate Addiction, Withdrawal, and Treatment
Because opiates tend to foster strong addictions, professional treatment is always recommended. The first step for many people is usually the most uncomfortable – withdrawal. Once a person is dependent on opiates, they will find their body struggling to maintain balance without the drug.
As opiates begin to be cleared from the body, withdrawal symptoms start to appear.
Common physical withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Runny nose, tearing and increased salivation
- Rapid breathing
- Excessive yawning
- Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
- Goosebumps or chills
- Loss of appetite
Withdrawal can also cause psychological stress and include symptoms such as:
- Extreme cravings
- Confusion or disorientation
While opiate withdrawal can be especially uncomfortable, it is not usually life-threatening. Even so, medical detox is recommended to mitigate the likelihood of relapse and keep the person safe and supported throughout the entire process.
Also, medical providers can prescribe medications to relieve specific symptoms of withdrawal, making the process more comfortable. In some cases, opiate replacement medications may be administered to manage cravings and withdrawal, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone.
These drugs help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and also can block the effects of illicit opiates. The medications essentially prevent opioids from binding to receptors in the brain, thus removing their euphoric effects and appeal.
While these drugs should not solely be used for treatment since methadone and buprenorphine are opioids themselves, they can be effective when used in conjunction with other treatment methods. Behavioral therapy, for instance, is the foundation for most treatment plans, where clients are given an opportunity to meet with therapists to identify the root causes of the addiction and work to modify thoughts and destructive behaviors.
Overcoming Opiate Addiction
Addiction to opiates is a harmful and potentially life-threatening condition that can and should be comprehensively treated as a chronic disease. Our center offers an integrated, evidence-based approach to addiction treatment that includes behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, and group support, among other services.
We employ compassionate addiction specialists who deliver these services to our clients with care and expertise. We provide clients with the tools they so desperately need to achieve a full recovery and experience long-lasting sobriety and well-being.
Recovery from addiction is a life-long process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today and find out how we can help you achieve the life you deserve!
Related: How Long Does a Heroin High Last?