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Opiate Symptoms And Warning Signs

Recognizing the telltale signs of opiate addiction can be a challenge. Learn how to identify and treat an addiction to these types of prescription drugs.

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Signs of Opiate Abuse

Opiates, also known as “opioid painkillers,” include prescription drugs such as hydrocodone, fentanyl and morphine. These substances are effective pain relievers when taken as directed by a physician. However, the calming effects that opioid painkillers produce are habit-forming and can lead to future patterns of abuse.

Examples of opiate abuse include taking the medication more frequently or in larger amounts than originally prescribed. Continued patterns of opiate abuse can lead to a spiraling addiction, which is difficult to overcome without the help of medical professionals. If you suspect a loved one is struggling with a dependence on painkillers, it’s important to take action immediately before the situation becomes worse.

Detecting drug abuse early on is the most effective way of preventing an addiction from developing.

To help identify whether someone is battling a painkiller abuse problem, there are several physical and behavioral warning signs to watch out for.

The most common physical and behavioral signs of opiate abuse and addiction are:

  • Needle marks on arms and legs from intravenous (injected) use
  • Constricted, “pinpoint” pupils
  • Having trouble staying awake, or falling asleep at inappropriate times
  • Flushed, itchy skin
  • Withdrawing from social activities that were once enjoyed
  • Sudden and dramatic mood swings that seem out of character
  • Impulsive actions and decision-making
  • Engaging in risky activities, such as driving under the influence
  • Visiting multiple doctors in order to obtain more prescriptions

Once a substance use disorder is identified, it’s vital to seek support as soon as possible. Some people are able to shed their abuse and addictive habits by talking to their doctor about adjusting their current prescription. Others may consider joining a 12-step program or meeting with a substance abuse counselor. However, those who have fallen victim to addiction will generally require intensive care at an inpatient rehab center.

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Immediate Side Effects of Opiates

Short-term side effects of opioid painkillers depend on the type of drug, how much of the substance is taken and how it is administered. The effects of these drugs typically occur within 15 to 30 minutes and may last up to several hours.

The immediate side effects of painkiller use include:

  • Relaxed state of mind and body
  • Feelings of calmness
  • Increased or false confidence
  • Slowed and shallow breathing
  • Impaired judgment
  • Itchy, flushed skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Blurred vision
  • Weight loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Euphoric mood
  • Lightheadedness

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Long-Term Side Effects of Opiates

The most damaging long-term side effect of opioid abuse is harm to the body’s vital organs. Individuals may also experience psychological issues, such as trouble concentrating, anxiety and depression.

See the list below for potential long-term side effects of these drugs:

  • Vein damage (from intravenous use)
  • Emotional instability
  • Severe constipation
  • Lack of concentration
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Liver damage

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The Dangers of Opiates

Opiates come in several different forms and can be consumed a number of ways. Typically, these drugs are prescribed as oral capsules or tablets. While a majority of people legally obtain a prescription from their doctor, others may borrow or steal pills from family members or friends. However, using another person’s medications is illegal and constitutes abuse.

A person struggling with painkiller abuse may experiment with various intake methods in order to achieve the strongest high possible. For example, tablets can be crushed into a powder form, which is then snorted. Powders can also be dissolved in liquid and then injected into the veins.

Snorting or injecting opioids produces an immediate “rush” that is far more intense than swallowing the pill form. However, a sudden surge of these substances in the body can lead to life-threatening complications, such as respiratory failure and overdose.

There are two main reasons why these medicines are so dangerous. The first is that they are very addictive. So there’s a high risk that if you take these, you may end up addicted to opiates and in fact some recent studies suggest that three out of every four people who are currently using heroin started with prescription opiates. The second reason they’re dangerous is that they’re so powerful. They can suppress your breathing such that you die. So not only are they addictive, but they are also potentially deadly.

- Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Other serious risks of opiate abuse may include:


    Human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is most commonly transmitted through bodily fluids or unsterilized needles. People who inject opiates are at an elevated risk of contracting HIV/AIDS compared to those who use snorting or oral consumption methods. Excessive substance abuse can lower a person’s judgment, which may increase their likelihood of engaging in unprotected sex. Uncover more information about the connection between HIV/AIDS and drug abuse

  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome

    Neonatal abstinence syndrome can occur if a pregnant woman is struggling with substance abuse disorder, including painkillers. The substances can pass through the placenta, causing the baby to become dependent on the drug while in the womb. After birth, the baby may need to stay in the hospital for several weeks or months while the drug slowly clears from their system. Learn more about neonatal abstinence syndrome and other drug abuse risks that affect pregnant women.

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Recognizing an Opiate Addiction

Identifying an addiction to opiates can be a challenge. This is because of the confusion that exists between what is considered abuse, and what is considered addiction.

Abuse can be defined by any inappropriate use of medications, such as:

  • Taking larger amounts of a medication than prescribed
  • Consuming a medication that was not prescribed to them
  • Mixing a medication with another substance, such as alcohol, to exaggerate the drug’s effects

Not everyone who uses painkillers becomes addicted. However, a person who abuses drugs in large amounts or over extended periods of time is more likely to fall victim to an addiction.

The hallmark characteristics of addiction include intense drug cravings and a strong desire to obtain or use the drug – despite negative consequences that may occur. A person suffering from addiction is incapable of controlling the level of their substance use. They may desperately want to quit, but they feel unable to do so on their own.

Aside from dangerous health risks, opiate abuse can also interfere with your personal life and close relationships with loved ones.

The consequences of opiate abuse and addiction often include:

  • Losing a job due to prioritizing substance use over work responsibilities
  • Financial issues stemming from spending too much money on new prescriptions
  • Criminal charges for possessing painkillers without a prescription
  • Damaged relationships with family members, friends and romantic partners

Staging an Intervention

When a person is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, their loved ones may consider staging an intervention. Interventions are planned conversations between loved ones and the person suffering. They are typically held after the person has been approached about their addiction, but denied having a problem or refused to get help. The goal of an intervention is to help the person get into treatment.

Because an addiction overpowers the brain’s sense of awareness and judgment, a person may not realize how their actions have affected their loved ones.

There is no “right” or “wrong” time to stage an intervention. Some families choose to hold an intervention when their loved one shows early signs of toxic habits. Others may feel it is necessary when a family member or friend’s addiction has scaled beyond control.

Regardless of when an intervention actually takes place, it is highly recommended to seek guidance from an intervention specialist. The specialist will be able to supervise the intervention and make sure the conversation goes as smoothly as possible.

Read our tips on staging a successful intervention.

Opiate Withdrawal Help

Breaking free from an addiction to painkillers is far from impossible. As a first step, it is highly recommended to seek out a licensed medical detoxification program. These programs help people who have become dependent on opioids overcome withdrawal symptoms. Detox programs provide a solid foundation for individuals to pursue further treatment at an inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment center.

If you’re struggling with the decision to seek treatment, call a dedicated treatment provider. They can give you information to help you decide which options suit your specific needs.

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