Opioid Abuse: Everything You Need to Know

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Explore Everything You Need to Know About Opioid Abuse

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Did you know that more than 16 million people around the world and 3 million people in the United States alone suffer or have suffered from opioid addiction? Even if you don’t know much about opioid abuse, you likely know that it can ruin lives.

If you know someone that has had an opioid addiction or is currently addicted, you may want to know more about the condition to understand that person better. Fortunately, this article is what you’ve been looking for.

As you keep reading, you’ll have all your opioid-related questions answered. We’ll explore what opioids are, what the signs of opioid abuse are, the symptoms of addiction, and the various treatment options available. By the end, you’ll be able to understand opioid addiction and abuse.

You will also be able to better understand those who suffer from opioid addiction and what you can do to help them. Without wasting any more time, we’ll start with the common question: What are opioids?

opioid abuse

What Are Opioids?

Opioids, also known as narcotics, do not come in one form. If they did, it might be easier to control the distribution of this drug. Common types of opioids include heroin, fentanyl, OxyContin, and oxycodone.

Some of these types are synthetically made while others are crafted in the street by drug abusers. However, there is one thing in common with all types of opioids: they all originate from the poppy plant.

What Is the Poppy Plant?

The poppy plant’s scientific name is Papaver somniferum. The plant has a long history of cultivation by ancient civilizations from the Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, and Asia. Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium, a country full of expansive poppy farms.

While poppy plants are often known for their edible poppy seeds, they are also known for their production of opium. The poppy plant at first glance appears to be nothing more than a flower so how can it be that it’s the root of such an addictive drug?

Opium does not come from the flower itself but rather a pod that the plant produces. When slicing this pod, it releases a milky liquid known as latex or opium. This liquid is the origin of morphine which has long been a pain reliever before the days of modern medicine.

However, from this same liquid, people over the years have figured out how to create synthetic and addictive drugs such as heroin. At this point, you may be wondering why people find opioids so addicting in the first place. Let’s take a look at the different types of opioids and how they affect the body.

The Uses and Types of Opioids

It is important to remember that opioids are not always bad. Opioids such as morphine are often used during and after major surgeryes to make sure that the patient is not in excruciating pain. Opioids treat the pain of cancer patients, accident victims, muscle tears, sports injuries, dental procedures, and more.

Prescription opioids may also be for those with chronic inflammatory pain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis so they can live a life with minimal pain. The reason for opioids instead of other pain medications is because opioids are often more effective. With some medical conditions or injuries that produce severe pain, weaker medications may barely reduce the discomfort.

It is also important to note that not everyone who uses opioids can become addicted. Addiction usually stems from the misuse of drugs. Misuse involves taking a higher dose of the drug than what doctors recommend or taking drugs that have not been prescribed for you.

For example, for those who have no issue with pain and no medicinal need for opioids, opioids can easily become addictive. This is because of how opioids affect the brain. Before we venture into the biochemical workings of opioids, let’s look at the types.


Oxycodone is one of the most commonly prescribed opioids. As with other opioids, it treats pain and is in the form of a pill. It is also one of the prescription opioids with the highest abuse rate.

This occurs when people take oxycodone in ways that they are not supposed to. This involves crushing or snorting the pills. Doing this releases all of the drugs at once throughout the body rather than gradually and can be very dangerous.


Morphine is often given to patients after surgeries or to patients suffering from cancer. It is also given to some patients nearing the end of their lives to make them more comfortable.

Morphine may be short-acting or long-lasting, depending on the type. Its effects also depend on how it is administered.


Methadone is unique because, despite being an opioid, it can also help those with opioid addictions recover. Methadone is a synthetic opioid and can help treat addicts by weaning them off opium.

This is helpful because trying to stop an addiction suddenly can be dangerous. However, methadone also has abuse potential if not taken as it should be.


Fentanyl, like morphine, is often used to treat severe pain after surgeries. However, it is significantly stronger than morphine, sometimes up to 100 times stronger.

The kind of fentanyl that is often abused is prescription fentanyl. As with oxycodone, the drug is abused when the tablets are crushed, snorted, injected, or ingested in ways other than what is prescribed. Those who use fentanyl recreationally refer to the drug as “China White.”


Unlike the other opioids listed, heroin is the only illegal opioid and the only opioid not available as a prescription. This drug has no medicinal use and is highly addictive.

It is injected and can produce an intense but short-lived high which makes the drug so addictive. Long-term heroin use can lead to serious damage to organs or death from overdose.

Opioid Abuse and The Brain

While all these types of opioids are unique, they more or less influence the brain in the same way. As with any kind of drug, certain receptors in the brain are affected. In the case of opioids, the three opioid receptors mu, kappa, and delta are affected.

Mu receptors are responsible for regulating mood, pain, and the reward systems in the brain. This is why when opioids bind to this receptor, pain relief and mood changes can occur.

Kappa receptors also influence mood and the brain’s reward systems. Delta receptors influence mood almost exclusively. If the delta receptors are blocked, anxiety and depression can result.

Interestingly, you cannot live without opioids because the human body produces its own opioids naturally. For example, endorphins are our body’s opioids and affect our opioid receptors the same way as actual opioids do.

Endorphins are released in response to activities such as exercise, sex, and eating. They allow us to take pleasure in our daily activities.

Opioids, on the other hand, can overload our opioid receptors and produce intense euphoria which can be dangerous and highly addictive.

The Adverse Effects of Opioid Abuse

While medicinal opioids have plenty of benefits, when they are abused, they can become a serious problem. We’ve already seen how opioids can affect the reward system of the brain by binding to our opioid receptors. By doing this, large quantities of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, are released in the body.

While this may not sound like a bad thing, it can become a problem over time. When opioids are repeatedly abused, the brain starts to have difficulty producing dopamine on its own and instead relies on opioids to produce it. Since the brain no longer wants to make its own dopamine, those addicted to opioids start to feel pleasure withdrawals which makes them crave more opioids.

If your brain does not produce its own dopamine, serious side effects can occur. These effects include depression, lack of concentration, memory loss, tremors, and more.


Beyond that, when using opioids for an extended period of time, people can start to experience a condition known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia. This is an increased sensitivity to pain.

Changes in the Frontal Lobe

One of the most important adverse effects of opioid abuse is how the drug affects the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is very important when it comes to tasks such as thinking, planning, and memorizing. When abusing opioids for a long time, the ability to perform these tasks may become compromised.

Loss of Control

In addition to this, the ability to control oneself becomes difficult for those addicted to opioids. This, of course, makes it difficult to stop taking the drug. It also becomes difficult to complete necessary tasks at work or school.

Opioid abuse in teens can be an especially serious problem because of how it can damage the brain at a young age. Next, we’ll discover how you can spot the signs of opioid abuse.

Signs of Opioid Abuse

It may be hard to spot the signs of opioid abuse if you don’t know what to look for. While not every opioid addict will have the same signs and symptoms, it is important to know what to look for. Some of the most common signs include changes in behavior.

The relationships of an opioid addict may start to crumble because of the focus placed on opioids. When looking at an addict, they may have dilated pupils, shallow breathing, and be sensitive to touch. They may also appear irritable and irrational.

Often, since they’re spending much of their money on obtaining opioids, addicts may quickly find themselves in financial trouble. This leads to asking for or stealing money. However, now that you know about the opioid abuse symptoms, is there anything you can do to help?

Treatment Options for Opioid Addiction

As with any addiction, opioid addiction can be hard to break. It’s not as easy as no longer taking any more opioids. In fact, it may be dangerous to stop taking opioids all at once.

For example, in cases of severe addiction, the previously mentioned drug methadone may be used to wean the addict off of opioids slowly. The benefit of using methadone is that it can reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. This is important because, in some cases, withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that hospitalization is needed.

However, what are the most common symptoms of opioid withdrawal?

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms often come in two waves. The first wave includes symptoms that are mild and tend to occur within 24 hours after stopping opioids.

As time progresses, the withdrawal symptoms often get worse. This occurs around 48 hours since opioids were last consumed.

While these symptoms can be painful, most addicts can recover without hospitalization. The withdrawal symptoms also begin to fade and disappear around 72 hours after opioids were last consumed. However, the exact amount of time one can recover from opioids depends on the severity of the addiction.

An addict may also find that they are still experiencing some withdrawal symptoms long after 72 hours. This is because opioid recovery can take as long as 6 months without abusing the drug to be successful. While this may sound difficult, it is worth it in the long run.

Your Guide to Opioid Abuse

You now know all about what opioid abuse is. You’re familiar with different opioids, signs, and symptoms of addiction, as well as addiction treatment. To learn more about addiction and recovery, contact us here.