Consequences of Opioid Use

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If you or someone you know uses opioids, being aware of the long-term effects of opioid use is essential to safeguarding one’s health. A class of drugs derived from natural and synthetic sources, opioids can cause severe and lasting damage to your health when misused.1, 2 By understanding the consequences of opioid abuse, you can determine if you need help to avoid the harmful long-term effects of opioid use.

In this Article:

What Are Opioids?

Consequences of Opioid Use

Opioid use and abuse can lead to addiction, organ damage, and psychological harm.

Also known as narcotics, opioid substances include both legal and illegal drugs according to classifications by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).1 People use and misuse opioids for pain relief, euphoria, a sense of well-being, and relaxation.1

Opioids can come from natural sources, derived from the opioid poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). They can also come from synthetic or semi-synthetic sources created in laboratories. The DEA classifies opioid substances based on their accepted medical benefits, risks of misuse, and other factors.1

Prescription Opioids

Opioid medications are prescribed for a variety of symptoms, including moderate to severe pain, coughing, and diarrhea.3 Prescription opioids include:1, 3, 4

Heroin and Other Illicit Opioids

The DEA classifies heroin and certain other illicit opioids as Schedule I, the highest and most restrictive classification for controlled substances. Illicit opioids can come from analogs of prescriptions opioid medications. Opioid analogs share chemical structures with certain medications but they have no accepted medical use. These substances can receive a Schedule I­ classification due to the harm they can cause people who use them and the illegal manufacturing methods required to produce them.1

When considering the consequences of opioid abuse, legal risks pose a real concern if using heroin or another Schedule 1 drug. Federal laws can punish anyone who possesses, distributes, or misuses these substances.1

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What Are the Consequences of Opioid Abuse?

Harmful short- and long-term effects of opioid use can impact your physical and mental health.1, 2, 6  How you take these substances and where you obtain them can also influence the health problems caused by opioid use and their severity.1

People can take opioid substances in several different ways, including by injection, snorting, and smoking. Misuse of medication can occur when people modify pills or capsule medication by cutting, crushing, or dissolving it before ingestion. When people change how they take prescription oral opioids, they remove the time release mechanisms that regulate how the dosage is delivered, thereby increasing how much they are taking at one time. Modifying prescription medication significantly increases the risk of taking more of the substance than the body can process. Taking too much of these substances can cause a person to overdose.1

Injecting heroin or other opioids has unique risks. Sharing needles can lead to contracting blood-borne illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis. Abscesses filled with pus can develop in the skin or other soft tissue. Injection also increases the risk of bacterial infections, vein collapse, and other damage to your circulatory system.5

Snorting heroin or other substances can lead to problems in your nasal cavities. Perforations, or damage to the mucosal tissue in the nose, can occur from snorting these substances.5

Short-Term Risks of Opioid Use

The short-term consequences of opioid misuse may vary depending on factors including:1

  • The type of substance taken
  • How a person takes the substance
  • The amount of opioids a person consumes
  • A person’s history of opioid use

The short-term effects of opioid misuse include:1, 3, 5

  • Confusion
  • Euphoria
  • Constipation
  • Feeling extremely sleepy
  • Speech problems
  • Loss of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Skin becoming flush
  • Itchiness
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Breathing problems

Impairments in judgment, memory, and attention during opioid intoxication can lead to an increase in risk-taking behavior or inattention to potential dangers in one’s environment.2, 3 Slowed breathing and other difficulties associated with respiration can have immediate and potentially life-threatening consequences.3

Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use

The long-term effects of opioid use can include tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal.1, 2 Tolerance occurs when a person needs to use a higher dose of opioid substances to experience the desired effects. Even when following a doctor’s prescription, using prescription opioids can lead you to develop tolerance.2,3

Dependence develops when a person needs to keep using a substance to prevent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.1 Dependence is most common if using large amounts of opioids over an extended period of time.2 Withdrawal from opioid medications can begin within hours following the last dose taken.3 These symptoms can interfere with a person’s ability to function normally.2

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include:2, 3

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Goosebumps
  • Pain in muscles and bones
  • Legs moving uncontrollably
  • Strong cravings or urges to use opioids
  • Changes to pupil size
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Fever
  • Yawning

During withdrawal, a person’s tolerance may decline, and their sensitivity to the effects of opioids can increase. This can raise a person’s risk of experiencing an opioid overdose during a relapse of drug use.6

According to the American Psychiatric Association, it’s normal for a person to develop symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal when using opioid medications under their doctor’s supervision.2 However, when these symptoms are accompanied by compulsive, drug-seeking behavior, the person may be experiencing addiction, also known as opioid use disorder.2

In addition to tolerance and withdrawal, other signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder include:2

  • Having a strong craving or desire to take opioid substances
  • Taking opioids in large amounts or for a longer period than originally intended
  • Not being able to reduce opioid use
  • Needing a lot of time to recover from the effects of opioid use
  • Using opioids despite negative effects on the person’s body or mind
  • Using opioids repeatedly in dangerous situations
  • Giving up important relationships or responsibilities due to opioid use
  • Having challenges in relationships, work, school, or engaging in recreational activities due to opioid use

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Opioid Overdose

Misusing opioids, attempting to become intoxicated through opioid misuse, mixing opioids with other drugs, or taking too much of these substances can result in overdose. Other factors such as advanced age and a history of illegal opioid use can also increase a person’s risk of opioid overdose.3

Overdose is a particular danger with opioids because of how these drugs can suppress breathing if a person takes too much of them.3 The risk of death or long-term health problems, including brain damage, can occur when overdose goes untreated.5

Symptoms of overdose include:3

  • Pale appearance, especially of the face
  • Clammy skin
  • Vomiting
  • Gurgling noises
  • Slow or no breathing
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Blue or purple color in lips or fingernails

Treat all signs of overdose as an emergency and seek medical attention immediately. Naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdose, can counter the potentially life-threatening effects of this dangerous experience. Having someone available to administer this medication, provide support, prevent choking, and administer other life-saving aid can prevent permanent injury and reduce the risk of life-threatening complications.3

Naloxone can be administered through injection or inhalation.3 Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about accessing this medication to promote the safe use of opioids and reduce the risk of fatal overdose.

What Is the Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder?

Treatment for opioid use disorder begins after detoxification, the process of managing withdrawal symptoms while clearing substances from your body. Getting matched with the right treatment program requires an accurate assessment of addiction symptoms and recovery needs. You can receive withdrawal management and long-term recovery in a variety of settings.7

Recovery and treatment programs offer several services to support recovery from the long-term effects of opioid use. These include:7

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Medication management
  • Mutual or peer support groups
  • Relapse prevention planning
  • Case management services
  • Holistic interventions

Opioid use and misuse do not need to control your life. If you would like to learn more about your options for recovery, call (800) 407-7195(Who Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.

Resources

  1. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drugs of abuse: A DEA resource guide, 2020 edition. U.S. Department of Justice.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Misuse of Prescription Drugs Research Report.
  4. S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, August 20). Commonly Used Drugs Charts.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Heroin Research Report.
  6. Hoey, N.M. (2019). Overdose. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health. Salem Press.
  7. Miller, W. R., Forcehimes, A. A., & Zweben, A. (2019). Treating addiction: A guide for professionals, 2nd ed. The Guilford Press.

the Take-Away

Opioid misuse can have harmful impacts on your physical and mental health. If you recognize symptoms of opioid addiction, help is available.