What Are Opioids?Opioids are a category of drugs that include illicit substances, such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as painkillers available legally only by prescription, such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone hydrocodone, and many others. Due to a high potential for addiction, it’s relatively easy to become dependent on these drugs, especially when an individual is not taking them as directed under medical supervision. Regarding heroin and other illegal opioids, this is never the case. When prescribed, these drugs are given to those who have suffered a severe injury, undergone surgery, or, in some instances, experience chronic pain related to cancer or palliative care.
How Do Opioids Impact the Brain?Opioids bind to certain receptors in the brain that help block pain signals and produce feelings of relaxation and well-being. Opioids have become a staple of modern medicine and are often indispensable for managing acute pain or help people who suffer from severe conditions to be more comfortable. Problems can occur, however, when a person uses a drug too much, too often, or for too long. In the very worst-case scenario, a person may begin to use the drug recreationally or for non-medical purposes. Opioids have depressant properties, and these are what cause an overdose to occur. Opioids can dramatically slow down heart rate and respiration and cause blood pressure and body temperature to drop to a perilously low level.
Understanding Opioid Abuse and AddictionThe abuse of opioids is not needed for addiction to develop, but it is one major risk factor. A person can become dependent on opioids after using them for a prolonged period, and this can occur even when prescribed correctly by a doctor. Dependence is chemical condition caused by the repeated use of a substance such that the person’s body begins to rely on the presence of a substance to function normally. Dependence does not equal addiction, but addiction always includes dependence. Addiction is also characterized by tolerance, a condition in which the body responds to repeated use of a substance by diminishing it’s effect. This results in the person needing increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the desired results, be it pain relief or to induce a high. Addiction is also further hallmarked by the compulsive need to seek and use drugs or alcohol to the detriment of oneself or others. A person who has become dependent on opioids will likely stop at nothing to obtain them, and this may include stealing from others or even prostituting themselves in order to get their next fix. Finally, opioid addiction results in withdrawal symptoms when the person tries to quit or can no longer obtain their drug of choice. These symptoms are often severe and painful and flu-like, causing nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and body aches and pains. Although not generally life-threatening, these effects are often enough to compel the person to start using again, and for this reason, it is highly advisable that a person attempting to quit undergo a medical detox. During this process, the patient can be administered medications to minimize symptoms and reduce cravings, and be monitored for complications, should any arise.
How to Identify an Opioid OverdoseThere are several hallmark signs that a person is having an opioid overdose, including the following:
- Slowed, difficult, or stopped breathing
- Bluish fingernails or lips (cyanosis)
- Very slow or irregular heartbeat
- Cold, clammy skin
- Uncharacteristic paleness
- Confusion or drunken-like behavior