Opioid is a term used to define prescription painkillers containing synthetic opium derivatives. These are often called “opioid painkillers” to differentiate them from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are also sometimes called painkillers. Opioid painkillers have significant medical value for treating both chronic and temporary pain, but their biggest drawback is that they’re highly addictive. When taken even in normal doses, opioids commonly cause relaxation, insensitivity to discomfort and feelings of euphoria. As such, this leads some people to use them for the euphoric effects.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid painkillers are the most commonly abused prescription medication in the United States with an estimated 5.1 million non-medical users. Furthermore, painkillers are responsible for for roughly 71 percent of all deaths caused by prescription drug overdose. To make matters worse, abuse of opioid painkillers is growing rapidly among American teens, and it’s believed that more than five percent do so habitually.
While opioid painkillers can be an invaluable treatment tool for real medical issues, they can be extremely dangerous when abused. They don’t just affect behavior and mood. They also negatively impact physical and mental health as well as other areas of life. Here are a handful of the potential harms caused by opioid abuse:
Prolonged abuse of opioids tends to cause empathy and sensitivity toward others to become blunted, as well as the desire for affection. When combined with opioids’ normal side effect of irritability, this can put considerable strain on interpersonal relationships. Partners or spouses may feel deeply hurt and neglected, friendships may be destroyed and family members may become estranged. Furthermore, many people who abuse opioids disregard current friends in order to spend more time with other drug users, which helps facilitate their habit.
Possessing a prescription medication without an actual prescription in your name is a felony. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), prescription medications are controlled substances requiring a doctor’s approval to obtain and use. The punishment and its severity depend on how many prior offenses you’ve had, the state the crime was committed in and the amount possessed. In most cases, small quantities and no prior drug-related convictions will only get you several years of probation and drug testing. However, either having a prior drug-related conviction, possessing distribution-level quantities of the drug or both will usually result in mandatory prison time.
Over time, opioid abuse can lead to anxiety, depression and even psychotic episodes. Physical and psychological dependence on the drugs can leave people feeling stuck. Their brain now needs the drugs to feel normal, and when they’re not available, fear of the withdrawal symptoms can fuel intense anxiety and panic. Many addicts even recognize that this is a problem, but quitting on their own is immensely difficult, so they keep using. This can cause feelings of helplessness, which leads to depression.
Opioids are rife with potential side effects, and some of the most common are appetite suppression, nausea, vomiting and constipation. With the exception of nausea and vomiting, these effects only increase with use. People who abuse opioids may frequently skip meals or display little interest in food. Naturally, as this goes on, the person may become underweight and develop multiple nutrient deficiencies. Chronic constipation only worsens things. Waste builds up in the intestine, slowing gastric emptying and further hindering appetite. In some cases, constipation may become so severe that medical intervention is necessary. Each of these factors can also serve to exacerbate the mental health consequences of opioid abuse.
Of course, any problem that carries social and criminal ramifications will usually also the affect ability to work. When opioid abuse gets out of hand, it can sometimes cause declines in performance or conflicts with co-workers that lead to being fired. This is also true of being convicted for unlawful possession of opioids. Many jobs will fire an employee under these circumstances, and a felony on a criminal record makes finding another decent-paying job extremely difficult.
Identifying Opioid Abuse
Are you worried that you or someone you love may be addicted to opioid painkillers, but aren’t sure where to start? First, you should be alert for signs of painkiller abuse and addiction.
These can include:
- Withdrawal symptoms, like tremors, hallucinations, sweating, paleness, diarrhea and sensitivity to light, sound and touch
- Uncharacteristic irritability and snappiness
- Arguing with loved ones more than usual, shouting at them or saying deliberately hurtful things during conflicts
- Otherwise unexplained weight loss and a gaunt, pale appearance
- Increasingly secretive behavior or telling lies to mask drug use
- Hiding drugs
- Suddenly spending time with a different group of people
- Becoming angry or anxious when more painkillers are unavailable
- Extremely contracted pupils, called “pinpoint pupils”
- Randomly falling asleep even mid-conversation. This is called “nodding off” and indicates the threshold of overdose
In Case of Overdose
If you’re concerned that someone may have overdosed on opioid painkillers, it’s important to act quickly and decisively.
Look for the following signs:
- Shallow breathing
- Slow or uneven or weak heart beat
- Delirium and hallucinations
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
If the person loses consciousness, lay them on their side right away. Some people vomit in this state, and if they’re on their back, they may aspirate and suffocate. Afterward, call 911 or get the person to an emergency room immediately.
If it’s discovered that either you or someone you care for is struggling with opioid addiction, it’s important to know that help is available. The best option is to seek an inpatient treatment center. Here, patients are shielded from the pressures of everyday life that might otherwise cause them to relapse to find relief. In addition, the professional staff are experienced at providing care that meets patients’ individual needs, including those for their physical and mental health.
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