Due to the recent spike in overdoses and deaths among people of all races and classes, opioid abuse and addiction has become a matter of national concern. Opiates are naturally derived from the poppy plant, while opioids are synthetically produced to mimic the natural effects of opium. Both are used to relieve pain in patients suffering from a variety of ailments. Opiates and opioids are classified in one of two ways:
- Antagonists – These drugs are considered less addictive than their counterparts. Common antagonists are naltrexone and naloxone, which are also used in detoxification to help relieve withdrawal symptoms and in reversing overdoses caused by opioids.
- Agonists – These substances have a high potential for abuse, because they mimic the effects of endorphins that occur naturally in the body. Common opiate agonists include:
Typically, patients are prescribed an opioid painkiller after an accident, injury, or medical procedure. The substance builds up in a person’s system over short periods of time, making the prescribed dosage less effective and encouraging a person to take higher and/or more frequent doses. This means that even when taken as prescribed, it is possible to develop a physical and psychological dependency on the medication. Because of their calming and euphoric effect when taken in large doses, opioids are also popular among recreational drug users. These users purchase and take the prescription painkillers illegally.
In either case, drug-seeking behaviors occur when the medication runs out, indicating a substance use disorder commonly referred to as addiction. Commonly, the addiction drives a person’s every action, seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors or begging, borrowing, and stealing from family, friends, and strangers. In other cases, they may turn to illegal substances like heroin, which can be easier and cheaper to acquire.
Of course, anyone who is actively using opiates is also at risk of overdose, either by taking too much of the drug or by combining it with other substances, like anti-depressants, alcohol, or street drugs. Opioid overdoses are characterized by the following symptoms:
- Constricted pupils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
- Clammy skin
In the event of an overdose, a loved one, first responder, or medical professional may administer naloxone to reverse the effects of the opiate on the brain. A survived overdose is also a common catalyst for seeking treatment.
If you or someone you love wants to quit using the substance but is unable to do so, the next step is professional help in the form of a drug treatment program.
Treatment Options for Opioids
The most common treatment for a substance use disorder involving opioids begins with inpatient detoxification. Eliminating opioids from your body is both painful and dangerous. A medically-supervised detox program in an inpatient setting will keep you healthy and safe as you complete the first step of treatment.
However, it’s important to know that other options exist, including medication-assisted therapy (MAT). For people with long-term opioid addictions, stopping “cold turkey” can prove impossible. The prescribed medications can help stabilize brain chemistry while blocking the effects of the illicit drugs without the euphoric effects.
Whether you choose detox or MAT, the next step will be inpatient rehabilitation and ongoing outpatient care to help identify underlying issues and co-occurring mental health conditions, and provide tools and coping skills to help overcome them. Individual and group counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and 12-step programs are effective in helping people in recovery avoid triggers and prevent relapse.