Opiate Addiction and Abuse

Opiates are among the most addictive substances in the United States. Millions of prescriptions are written every year, with many people developing an addiction on just their prescribed dose. Learn about the different types of these drugs, their effects and how they are most commonly abused and treated.

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    What Are Opiates?


    Opiates include controlled prescription substances that are derived from opium, which is a chemical that naturally occurs in poppy seeds and plants. These drugs, which are clinically used for treating mild to severe pain in patients, are also referred to as “opioid painkillers.” Due to their intensely calming effects, opioid painkillers have tremendously high rates of abuse which, in many cases, can lead to addiction.

    In the United States, 259 million opioid painkiller prescriptions were written in 2012. An estimated 2 million people later developed an addiction.

    An addiction to painkillers often begins after someone is prescribed the medication for pain following an accident or injury. Patients are given a prescription and specified dose from a doctor, with no intention of abusing the medication. However, over a period of time, a person may feel that the drug is no longer as effective as it was in the beginning. This feeling is caused by an increased tolerance to the painkillers, which means that the substance has built up within a person’s body.

    A tolerance can also cause a person to take larger doses than their recommended amount in order to achieve the effects they want. Increasing the medication dosage can lead to a physical dependence, whereby they need to continue taking the drug to feel normal. Eventually a physical dependence can lead to cravings, which are characterized by growing urges to continue using the drug – despite negative consequences that may occur.

    When a person’s drug-seeking behavior scales completely out of control and begins to compromise their physical and psychological health, a full-blown addiction is present. Addiction is far more serious than a strong desire to use drugs – it is a neurological disease that feels inescapable to the person suffering.

    An individual who struggles with a substance abuse disorder will often wish to quit but feels unable to do so on their own. The only way a person can fully overcome the grips of an addiction to opioid painkillers is by seeking treatment at an inpatient rehab center.

    Types of Opiates

    Opiates are prescribed for a wide range of medical needs. There are two main classifications for this type of drug: antagonists and agonists.

    Antagonists such as Naltrexone and Naloxone are considered to be less addictive than agonists, though the potential for abuse still exists. They are often used to help with the detoxification process, which often takes place as the first part of addiction treatment.

    Agonists mimic the effects of naturally-occurring endorphins in the body and produce an opiate effect by interacting with specific receptor sites in the brain. Agonists include drugs like morphine and fentanyl, which are most commonly used in medical settings and have the strongest effects. Many substances in this category have a very high potential for abuse and addiction. Other examples of agonists include hydrocodone, oxycodone, heroin, and buprenorphine.

    The most common opiate agonists can be found in the list below.

    • Codeine

      Manufactured to relieve mild to moderate pain and coughing, codeine is less potent than other opioid painkillers. It is easily obtained with a prescription, as well as in some over-the-counter medicines. Commonly abused among young adults, codeine is often combined with sugary drinks to create a mixture referred to as “purple drank” or “sizzurp.”

    • Darvocet/Darvon

      Though now banned by the FDA, Darvocet and Darvon are propoxyphene-based painkillers that were responsible for thousands of hospitalizations and deaths during their prime. While these prescriptions are no longer being produced, a black market still exists for this drug.

    • Demerol

      A narcotic used to treat moderate to severe pain, Demerol is less frequently prescribed in modern times because of its high potential for addiction. Demerol is the brand name for meperidine, which has euphoric effects similar to morphine.

    • Dilaudid

      Sometimes referred to as “hospital grade heroin,” Dilaudid is a powerful type of painkiller. Available in extended-release tablets, Dilaudid abuse can quickly lead to breathing problems or even death.

    • Fentanyl

      A synthetic painkiller that is up to 100 times as potent as morphine, fentanyl is only prescribed in cases of severe pain. When used in conjunction with other painkillers such as heroin, fentanyl can quickly lead to overdose and other dangerous side effects.

    • Hydrocodone

      A main ingredient in many powerful painkillers, hydrocodone can be found in drugs such as Vicodin. It is typically combined with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but the FDA has also approved pure hydrocodone medications.

    • Methadone

      An opioid used for moderate to severe pain, methadone is also used as a way to curb cravings for people who are addicted to other substances, including heroin. Despite its use for helping treat other addictions, methadone is still an addictive substance in its own right.

    • Morphine

      Morphine has been touted as a godsend for people suffering from severe chronic pain. It is also one of the most addictive substances known and responsible for a large amount of unintentional drug-related deaths nationwide.

    • Oxycodone

      Oxycodone is sold under different brand names including OxyContin and Percocet. It is a widely prescribed painkiller and has a high potential for abuse.

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      Opioids vs Opiates

      Many people have questions surrounding the difference between these two terms. As it turns out, both terms are often interchanged because these substances largely produce the same effects.

      • Opiates

        Opiates are substances with active ingredients that are naturally derived from opium. Common opiates include morphine and codeine, which are both directly made from the opium found in poppy plants.

      • Opioids

        Opioids are synthetically manufactured substances that mimic the “natural” effects of opium. Some opioids are fully synthetic, while others are only partially synthetic – meaning they still contain natural opium.

      Both opioids and opiates work by activating Mu receptors in the brain and depressing the central nervous system. When these receptors become activated by one of these drugs, they release “feel good chemicals” known as endorphins. The release of endorphins caused by opiate or opioid use leads to feelings of relaxation and calmness, which can be highly addicting.

      Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a drug was derived from a natural source or chemically manufactured. Both opiates and opioids carry an equal potential for abuse and addiction. It’s always best to discuss these risks with your doctor before taking an opiate or opioid medication.

      Opiate Effects and Abuse

      Opiates produce euphoric and tranquil effects when taken in amounts that are larger than prescribed. The pleasant, care-free feelings a person experiences when taking these drugs are often what leads to destructive patterns of abuse.

      Opiate addiction is often characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior. For example, in an attempt to obtain more of the drug, a person may visit multiple doctors in order to get new prescriptions, otherwise known as “doctor shopping.”

      The pathological urges to use these drugs can also drive people to borrow, buy or steal the drugs from friends and family. As an act of desperation, some individuals may resort to seeking out heroin, an illegal substance that closely mimics opiate effects is commonly purchased off the streets. Despite the well-known dangers of heroin, it is often easier and cheaper to obtain than opioid pills.

      In a 2014 survey, 94 percent of respondents said they chose to use heroin over prescription painkillers because it was cheaper and easier to get.

      Opiate Abuse Statistics

      Millions of people struggle with an opioid painkiller use disorder, but family members and other loved ones are also impacted. Here are some of the most staggering abuse statistics below.



      Over 50 percent of people who abused prescription painkillers in 2013 received the drugs from a friend or relative, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.



      Each day, 46 people die from a prescription painkiller overdose.



      An estimated 23 percent of people who used heroin in 2014 also developed a co-occurring painkiller addiction.

      Opiate Overdose

      A devastating, yet all too common occurrence of opioid painkiller abuse is an overdose. An overdose is commonly caused by taking too much of a substance at any given time or by combining multiple substances, especially other central nervous system depressants such as benzodiazepines and alcohol. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with 38 percent of all overdose deaths attributed to painkillers.

      People can overdose on painkillers alone, but the risk is much greater for those who consume other types of substances at the same time. Common examples of polydrug abuse include mixing these drugs with alcohol or another type of prescription drug, such as benzodiazepines.

      The telltale signs of an overdose related to taking these drugs include:

      • Unconsciousness
      • Confusion
      • Constricted pupils
      • Nausea
      • Vomiting
      • Shallow or restricted breathing
      • Cool or clammy skin
      • Frequent vomiting
      • Extreme sleepiness or inability to wake up
      • Intermittent loss of consciousness

      For many people, surviving an overdose was the defining moment that encouraged them to seek treatment. However, some people are hesitant to enter rehab shortly after experiencing an overdose. In fact, individuals will often wake up from an overdose and immediately use again.

      It’s common to feel ashamed about your struggle with substance use and fear judgment from others during treatment. In reality, the people you will encounter in rehab are there to support you for seeking help – rather than scrutinize you for succumbing to drug abuse.

      Your chosen center’s therapists and staff will work hard to ensure that your treatment experience is 100 percent confidential and judgment-free. This is because they believe in your ability to overcome the disease of addiction. They want to do everything they can to instill the confidence and motivation you will need throughout your recovery journey.

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      Treatment for Opiate Addiction

      There are many treatment options to choose from, but the most effective form of treatment for opiate addiction is inpatient detox followed by inpatient rehab. Inpatient rehab centers have specialized programs for individuals suffering from this type of substance use disorder. These programs help patients dig deep within themselves to uncover the root cause of their drug use. Knowing what caused them to use drugs or alcohol in the first place will help prevent future triggers while in recovery.

      Many individuals quickly find that the rewards of progressing through a treatment program far outweigh the “high” they used to achieve from drug use.

      Effective forms of therapy used during treatment often include cognitive behavioral therapy, individual and group counseling, and 12-step programs.

      Reach out to a recovery specialist today for more information about your treatment options.

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