Substance Addiction

Are Opiates Harmful? A Look into the World of Opiates

Opiate Addiction

Today, people with chronic pain need not suffer. Of late the market is flooded with pain medication for pain relief that doctors can prescribe. A visit to the doctor gets them the right medication for their type of pain.

One such class of drugs that is effective for managing pain are the opiates. For a long time, opiates have been prescribed for pain relief. About 20 percent of patients access them on prescription. Your doctor may also call it a narcotic or an opioid.

Opiates have been found to be particularly useful in managing pain. They are also used as a cough suppressant when managing severe lung illnesses.

That said opiates are also widely known for their addictive nature. Surprisingly most users, even those with the best of intentions, are not aware of just how fast opiates can easily snare its users without them even knowing that they are becoming addicted to it.

And it’s no wonder then that the use of opiates has been on a steady increase globally and with it, the abuse of it. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that between 26 and 36 million people not only use, but they also abuse opiate drugs. These numbers keep growing every year at an alarming rate.

In US alone, over two million opiate users are addicted to it stemming from substance abuse. A further estimated five million are addicted to heroin. Recent reports indicate a startling over 200 million opiate prescriptions have been dispensed.

In US opiates are readily available as prescription drugs for painkillers. This has further compounded the scourge of addiction to opiates which has led to deaths of thousands – an estimated 17,000 and counting according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Dependence in Opiates

You know you are crossing a line when you cannot get off the drug, its negative effects on you notwithstanding. Some people go to an extent of falsifying their prescription; stealing money to buy the drugs; or stealing the drugs themselves just to fuel their habit. As a result, many homes, families and relationships have suffered greatly due to these unbecoming habits that arise from opiate addiction.

When a person uses these opiates, whether prescribed or otherwise, the opiates signal their brain to ‘feel good’. With prolonged use, the brain begins to require more of this ‘feel good’ sensation hence the user starts needing more. If one is misusing or abusing the drug, eventually their brain will demand more, higher dosages to overcome the tolerance that their bodies have developed with prolonged use. To keep the ‘feel good’ feeling coming, they result in other forms of higher opiates. Reports indicate that as much as 75% of users addicted to opiates will switch to use of the cheaper heroin which has a higher dosage.

It reaches a point where one feels the need to put in more opiate in their system just so they can feel something, anything. Such people have been found with toxic amounts of the drugs in their system making leading to an overdose.

What Are Opiates

Opiates are prescription drugs for pain relief. Their molecular structure is very similar to that of morphine. However, they are generated from the naturally occurring opium, a pain reliever extracted from poppy plants popularly found in the Afghan mountains.

Morphine and codeine are also natural drugs extracted from opium. The brain receives a rush of euphoria or pure ecstasy if you please, when one takes any of these opiates at a higher dose than is recommended.

Types of Opiates

Today, the market is flooded with opiates among them: morphine, heroin, baine, OxyContin, and codeine.  Other prescription drugs such as fentanyl, hydrocodone and oxycodone, have essentially the same mechanism of action as naturally occurring opiates.

Opiates also occur in various classes. There are opiates that occur naturally in the body located in the brain. Naturally occurring opiates from the poppy plant are alkaloids, opium. And finally, synthetic opiates, meaning they are man-made occur as semi or fully synthetic.

Opiates are produced in many forms from pills to injectable solutions and patches.

Risk Factors

Opiate Addiction

The greatest risk to this day for opiates is developing a dependency to them. Still, most opiates are extremely useful for their medicinal value. Street opiates like heroin are a story for another day as they have zero medicinal value. In fact, the government classifies them as Schedule 1 drugs because they do not benefit mankind in any way. However, they are highly addictive just as the former prescription opiates classified as Schedule 2 drugs.

Some people take higher opiate doses prescribed for pain-management to achieve a feeling of ecstasy. This high is achieved when the opiates release substances that trigger the release of neuro-chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These in turn signals the brain to release pleasure and reward responses to the body.

They say these pleasure signals are unlike your normal feelings of euphoria. They can be compared to listening at your favourite jam from your car radio and listening to the same song blazing at a club with sounds waves from the over-the-top speakers blaring in your ears and swaying your body left to right, left to right…you get the point.

The problem with this trend is that it teaches your brain that that is normal and therefore your body works to achieve that level of ecstasy throughout. Hence, the brain begins to demand for more of the ‘feel good’ substance from opiates. And we all know how that ends up, a cycle of addiction that is out of control.

Recreational users bear the biggest risk to addiction from opiates. The more they consume the opiates, the more their brain begins to associate the drug with feeling good, hence demands for more.

Benefits of Opiates

Pain Reliever

One of the greatest benefits of opiates is pain management. While an estimated 100 million adults suffer from some type of chronic pain in the U.S. alone, doctors prescribe this opioid for 20 percent of their patients needing pain medication. Opioid pain killers are usually prescribed for treatment of back pain, dental pain and even injury-related pain.

Research indicates that when opiates are taken as directed, they are not likely to lead to overuse or addiction. They are highly effective and work with minutes or a few hours depending on the type of opiate. Morphine works in 4 to 6 hours, but its effects are much longer. Heroin works in a record 15 to 30 minutes!

Cough Suppressor

Opiates are very effective in managing cough when treating acute lung conditions. They are effective as a cough suppressant.

Pocket Friendly

The biggest advantage to opiates is that they are relatively cheap compared to other painkillers for managing chronic pain. For over a century now, Morphine has been used regularly to control pain and it is still around.


Misuse and abuse of opiates rises when one cannot get them through the correct legal channels i.e. prescription. Hence many have resulted to manufacture them in their own kitchen or backyards. These are what we call synthetic or man-made opioids. These are opiates such as the street drug Heroin.

Other Synthetic opiates are generally safe when strictly taken for a short time as per doctor’s prescription. For instance, versions of morphine produce the other opioids namely: Fentanyl/ Duragesic, Meperidine/Demerol, Hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet), Methadone, OxyContin/Oxycodone, Hydrocodone (Zohydro ER, Hysingla ER), Percodan, Percocet and Hydromorphone (Exalgo Dilaudid).

These drugs not only manage the pain, but also give you a feeling of ‘well-being’ or that’ feel good’ feeling.

Unfortunately, these two effects is what leads to their misuse when not taken as prescribed. In 2015 alone, an estimated 2 million Americans had complications related to misuse of opiate medication. The misuses include:

Taking a Higher Dose Than Prescribed

Taking someone else’s prescription, even for a genuine problem, like pain. It is easy to pop that readily available pain medication drug sitting on the medicine cabinet, but it is safer to get your own prescription medicine from your doctor -you may discover you don’t even need the latter for your type of pain.

Taking It to Get That ‘Feel Good’ Feeling

It’s a widespread problem. In 2015, approximately 2 million Americans had substance abuse disorders stemming from opioid related medications.

The Science Behind Opiates Addiction

Opiate Addiction

Opiates cause addiction by rewarding your brain. This means that the substances released by opiates signals your brain to release feelings of euphoria. With prolonged use, your brain begins to ask for more of this ‘feel good’ substance to match the level that your body’s system ‘requires’. And before you know it, you are caught up in a vicious cycle of addiction.

Even with doctor-prescribed opiates for pain relief, prolonged use exposes its users to addiction. The body adapts to the drug ever so subtly, but remarkably very fast. What was effective week one, becomes surprisingly ineffective by the 10th week.

Opiates also trigger the release of dopamine, a neuro-chemical in the brain that creates feelings of pleasure. This in turn reinforces the user’s desire to not only feel high but to actually desire to ingest the substance.

Once the brain is addicted to opiates, it finds its every hard to function without it. When you hit this stage, the wisest course of action is to receive treatment.

Opiates Short-Term Effects

While the greatest damage to the body occurs with prolonged use of opiates, slight changes on the brain can still be observed after just a few days of usage. Possible side effects even after just one use include: drowsiness, nausea, and even mental confusion.

Because of the intensity of interaction between opiates and the brain, the drugs remain extremely addictive, with notable symptoms of addiction in record three days. These side effects include pain relief, lethargy sedation, constipation, supressed breathing, delayed reaction time, drowsiness, paranoia and that ‘feel-good’ feeling.

Pinprick Effect: This condition also known as pinpoint pupils causes the pupils in the eye to look like pins. The opiate relaxes the iris giving the pupil that unmistakable pin-like look of opiate abusers.

Opiates Long Term Effects

Some long term side effects include: hypoxia (respiratory depression) which eventually causes brain damage, nausea and vomiting, constipation, abdominal distention and bloating.

Damage to the brain: Prolonged use of opiates damages parts of the brain. Repeated use or misuse of opiates literary causes the brain to recalibrate its neuro signals to a totally new system- dictated by opiates. The brain’s neuro chemicals begin to send different signals to the brain’s reward system causing users to be unable to create their own ‘feel good’ feelings.

Inability to Handle Stress: This rewiring of the brain in turn causes the person to eventually lose their body’s natural ability to handle stress.

Inability to Cope with Pain: We’ve seen that opiates fundamentally changes a way a person copes with or handles stress and pain. Some studies indicate that opiates can cause the body to lose its natural ability to tolerate any form of pain and discomfort. This causes someone to eventually experience intense pain than they would normally feel.

Tolerance Towards Opiates: Once your brain is addicted to opiates, a tolerance is built up. This can lead to a physical dependence on the drug.

Damage to the Liver: This is especially common among users who combine opiates with acetaminophen.

Imbalanced Emotions: Seeing the body’s natural control is already affected. It is little wonder then that the person is unable to control their moods and other emotional functions. This negative limitation usually leaves the person feeling powerless and oppressed.

Health Complications: Not only do opiates affect the brain’s natural calibration; they also have a profound effect on the physical health of the body, and its internal organs. Opiate abusers suffer from numerous health complications.

Decreases Life Expectancy: Opiate drug abusers are more likely to die than non-users. Their quality of life takes a dive once they get addicted.

Heart Problems: The body is not meant to cope with copious amounts of powder flooding its bloodstream. When opiates abusers grind and mix opiate tablets with alcohol or water and inject the solution into their bodies, they are putting themselves in grave danger. Injecting opiates like this can cause chronic heart infections, and the deadly pulmonary embolism (blockage in the veins).

Developing Gangrene: Infections caused by prolonged injections can cause gangrene – dying and eventual rotting of the flesh- as the flesh is frequently pricked and not allowed to heal.  This can cause a massive blood infection, a potentially life-threatening situation.

Risk of HIV and Hepatitis: Indeed, many deadly infections such as HIV and viral hepatitis have been contracted through the use of unsterile, infected needles during intravenous use of liquid opiates. Heroin intravenous users are reportedly at a higher risk of contracting HIV and other blood borne ailments.

The Scourge of Opiate Overdose

As we have seen, opiates create an incessant desire in its users to increase dosage so that they can feel something, anything. This can result in people injecting lethal amounts of opiates that overload their system, leading to an overdose.

Unfortunately, it is surprisingly very easy to accidentally overdose on opiates. Tens of thousands of people are dying from prescription drug overdose in US and Canada alone.  Recent reports indicate a startling rise of opiate overdose globally every year.

People at a greater risk of overdosing on opiates include:

  • Persons who mix their drugs with alcohol
  • Persons who mix their drugs with other depressants.

The fact that an opiate overdose can occur before one realizes that it is actually happening should be a wake-up call! This is because once one overdoses on opiates; their respiratory system becomes depressed, in essence shutting off any oxygen supply to the brain. This ultimately leads to loss of consciousness and in fatal cases death.

Sadly, a lot of people are at risk of overdosing despite being on medication that was legally prescribed to them. Long-time users of opiates develop a tolerance towards opiates which can easily lead to overdose. However, the risk of death is certainly higher for persons using street drugs.

Symptoms of an Opiate Overdose

Symptoms of an overdose include: extraordinary fatigue, vomiting, inability to wake up, delirium, drifting in and out of consciousness, severe breathing problems, bluish-tinge to skin, and cold skin.

Treating Opiate Withdrawal

If you find you cannot stop using the drugs even if on prescription or if you compulsively use them despite their apparent harm to your health and life, you are probably developing a dependency to the drug. If upon cessation of using, you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, insomnia, runny nose, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, and abdominal cramping, we highly suggest that you seek medical attention before it spirals out of control.

Treating opioid addiction is brutal and the effects of opiates on the body are tremendously intense. If you believe you have opioid addiction we highly suggest that you get in touch with an accredited drug rehabilitation center.

Opiate Withdrawal

The intensity of withdrawals from opiates is directly proportional to a user’s cumulative tolerance. The more they use the drug the more their body demands higher, stronger doses to maintain the ‘feel good’ feeling. The body easily reaches a level where it no longer feels the euphoric effects of the opiates. At this point, the users will continue taking them, not for the feel good feeling but to overcome the painful, excruciating withdrawal episodes that they experience when they stop using.

Since the brain’s natural production of neurochemicals and hormones has been tampered with as a result of prolonged drug use, it begins to entirely rely on the substances produced by opiates. This in turn causes the painful effects of withdrawal that is brutal to the body. Withdrawal therefore is not just physically painful; it also takes a huge toll on the user’s mental strength making “quitting” a seemingly impossible task.

Drugs Used For Treatment

Opiate Addiction

The common drugs used for treatment of opiate addiction include: SubOxone, Methadone and Fentanyl.

Of noteworthy is that fact that the long-lasting effects of opiate addiction may endure well into recovery. Even with extended, persistent treatment, the psychological effects can last for years still. For this reason, medically assisted treatment has to go hand in hand with counselling and group therapy for long lasting recovery to be achieved. This whole-patient approach has proved to be the most effective for helping patients to overcome opiate addiction.

If you know someone or you are addicted to opiates, rest assured you’re not alone. There’s hope for recovery. You can reclaim your life back from opiate and continue living a normal, healthy life just as you did before.


Opiates are both effective and deadly! Physicians prescribe them for the treatment of chronic back pain, dental pain and pain from injuries. However, misuse of prescription drugs or abuse of the drugs most certainly leads to both short term and long term detrimental side effects to the body.

What makes prescription opiates so potentially dangerous is the impact they have on the brain, much the same way morphine and heroin affects the brain. Opiates are also highly addictive especially with prolonged use and overdose.

The risk of addiction is so subtle yet so fast. There is a risk of addiction even when taking them exactly as prescribed. Of course the risk of addiction is heightened when one takes them contrary to directions; or by combining them with other drugs or substances such as alcohol.

Opiate addiction needs to be viewed as a disease, and treated as such. People who are dealing with addiction should not only be given treatment, but should also be encouraged and supported, much like people with chronic illnesses. The goal of long-lasting recovery is attainable with appropriate methods to help break the vicious cycle of opiate addiction.

If you are using opiates to control pain and suspect that you may be developing a tolerance or addiction, contact your health care professional today without delay.