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Signs and Effects of Opioid Addiction

There is an opioid epidemic spreading throughout the United States. There are initiatives in progress to advance the treatment of and recovery from opioid addiction, but the best way to avoid addiction is to acknowledge the signs and side effects of opioid abuse. Knowing that a loved one is struggling with an addiction to illicit substances can be difficult to swallow, but picking up on the signs can empower you to help them.

Opioid Use vs Opioid Abuse

What are opioids and why are they so addictive? According to John Hopkins Medicine, opioids are a “class of drugs that includes both prescription pain medicines and illegal drugs such as heroin.” It’s difficult to understand the fine line between opioid use and opioid abuse. One reason for this misconception is because some opioids are prescribed by physicians. Physicians may prescribe opioids to treat severe pain, but they must do so with caution because opioids can quickly turn from medical to recreational. To avoid becoming addicted to prescribed opioids, it is essential to take the medication according to the doctor’s orders and follow all instructions carefully. Although prescribed with good intentions, many patients given opioids by their physicians are at high risk to develop an opioid use disorder (OUD).

Understanding Opioid Dependence

What is considered an opioid use disorder (OUD)? An OUD is “a medical condition defined by not being able to abstain from using opioids, and behaviors centered around opioid use that interfere with daily life.” While this definition excludes physical dependence, an individual with an opioid use disorder is usually physically dependent on the substance, and this dependence is what drives the disorder. The physical dependence on an opioid drug usually involves unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when ending opioid use, including anything from intense cravings to severe sweating. It is possible to abuse opioids without experiencing a physical dependence on the substance. Physical dependence on an opioid drug interferes with and disrupts daily functioning. A user’s life revolves around being able to retrieve the drug in the desired amount, regardless of the toll it takes on finances or important relationships. With behavior like this, it can become clear to most people that this individual is struggling with an OUD. It’s important for a doctor to formally diagnose the individual with an OUD to ensure that they receive proper treatment, and be tapered and detoxed with support and safety.

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

A doctor is usually the best person to diagnose an OUD, but there are signs and symptoms of an OUD that loved ones can notice and encourage the person addicted to opioids to seek treatment. At initial opioid use, typical signs may not appear, but with time, more common signs will begin to surface, and it will be evident that an individual is indeed indulging in inappropriate opioid use. There are many indicators of opioid addiction, including but not limited to:

  • Inability to control opioid use
  • Uncontrollable cravings
  • Fatigue, lethargy, and drowsiness
  • Disturbed sleeping patterns
  • Significant weight loss
  • Returning flu-like symptoms
  • Low sex drive
  • Poor hygiene
  • Alterations in activity levels
  • Isolating from loved ones
  • Sneaking around from family and friends
  • Stealing money or goods from friends, family, or work
  • Unstable finances

Physical Effects of Opioid Addiction

The physical impact of opioids on the body is strong, and many physical symptoms appear with an OUD. These physical symptoms can surface with recent use, even if the user takes opioids infrequently. Physical symptoms have the potential to become long-term or more severe with frequent opioid use. The varying physical symptoms of opioid use include:

  • Lethargy
  • Sedation
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Decreased pupil size
  • Falling asleep or nodding off
  • Decreased breathing rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Constipation
  • Sense of itchiness and frequent scratching
  • Impaired coordination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • “Track Marks” or wounds/scars from intravenous use on arms, hands, in-between toes, and on many other parts of the body

Behavioral Effects of Opioid Addiction

Aside from the physical effects of opioid addiction, behavioral changes should also be expected. With opioid use, there is usually a noticeable difference in the user’s behavior to loved ones, family, friends, and coworkers. Although each opioid user has a unique baseline personality and comes from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds, the common behavioral side effects of opioid addiction can include:

  • Increased happiness or even euphoria
  • Abrupt and intense mood swings
  • Isolation
  • No longer showing up to social functions
  • Secrecy
  • Dishonesty
  • Dilemmas at work and in personal relationships
  • Arrests, jail time, and/or residing issues with the law
  • Difficulty fulfilling commitments
  • Seeking money at short notice
  • Abrupt financial difficulty
  • Changes in daily routine
  • Changes in ability to function in society
  • Taking other medications in larger doses than prescribed
  • “Doctor shopping” or visiting multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions for opioids”

Long Term Effects of Opioid Use

While the physical and behavioral effects of opioid addiction begin to appear with any amount of opioid use, there are long-term effects of opioid use. The long-term effects of opioid use can “range from the persistent presence of those symptoms experienced in early addiction to chronic, life-threatening illnesses as use progresses.” Other long-term opioid use symptoms may include:

  • GI programs like constipation, intestinal obstruction, and bowel perforation (a hole develops in the bowel wall)
  • Decreased immune function
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Respiratory issues
  • Irregular levels of hormones, imbalances difficult to return back to homeostasis
  • Mental disorders like depression and anxiety
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Damaged veins (scarred, collapsed, and/or with abscesses or boils)
  • Bacterial infections (in or near blood vessels and heart valves)
  • Blood-borne virus from intravenous use (Hepatitis B & C, HIV, and AIDS)

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

After a person has begun using opioids, whether prescribed or not, their body becomes used to certain chemical balances in the body and will become dependent on having drugs in their system to feel okay enough to function normally. A tolerance builds and without enough of the drug, or even more severe, without the drug, opioid users will go into withdrawal and experience a plethora of unpleasant symptoms. Opioid withdrawal symptoms are similar to having the flu. Some symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:

  • Upset stomach (nausea, vomiting, cramps, difficulty keeping anything down)
  • Trouble regulating body temperature (excessive sweating)
  • Obsessive and addictive thoughts about obtaining more drugs
  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Goosebumps
  • Restlessness
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue, frequent yawning
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Body aches
  • Leg cramps

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we believe that having the knowledge and awareness about varying addictive disorders is the first step for the users and their families to recover. Our staff is effective at approaching the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction with care and discipline and preparing our clients for a life free of opioid use and its consequences.

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