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Opioid Addiction: Signs, Side Effects & Treatment

5 min read · 6 sections

Prescription Opioids & Illicit Use

Opioid prescription bottle; prescription opioids are used to relieve pain, but are highly addictive.

Opioids are legally prescribed medications used to manage or treat pain. Opioids can be addictive and an addiction to opioids is known as an Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)

Prescription opioids are used to relieve pain, but they can also cause feelings of relaxation or intense euphoria, especially when misused.3, 4, 5

In addition to blocking pain signals, opioids also release large amounts of dopamine. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug and may cause the user to want to repeat the experience.6

Opioids alter the brain’s natural reward system, making it difficult to stop using.5 Physical dependence often makes it even harder to quit using, as the user has to take the drug to avoid the severe negative effects that occur during withdrawal.5

Opioid Use & Abuse Statistics in the U.S.

A national study in 2018 estimated that among Americans aged 12 or older:7

  • About 10.3 million people (3.7%) had misused opioids in the last year.
  • About 9.9 million people (3.6%) had misused prescription opioids in the last year.
  • Approximately 808,000 people (0.3%) had used heroin in the last year.
  • Approximately 2 million people (0.7%) had an opioid use disorder.
  • About 1.7 million people (0.6%) had a painkiller use disorder.
  • Approximately 526,000 people (0.2%) had a heroin use disorder.

Hydrocodone was the most commonly misused prescription opioid, with about 5.5 million Americans aged 12 or older (2%) abusing it in 2018.7 Oxycodone was the second-most commonly misused prescription opioid, with approximately 3.4 million Americans aged 12 or older (1.2%) abusing it in 2018.7

Efforts to address the opioid epidemic have led to prescription opioids becoming less available, and people have turned to alternate routes to obtain them in some cases.8 People may buy prescription opioids from others, which can be very costly, while heroin has similar effects and can be cheaper and easier to access.6 In people who use heroin, 80% have a history of prescription opioid misuse.6, 8, 9  

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Abuse

If you are concerned that someone you care about is misusing opioids, there are some signs to watch for. Symptoms of opioid abuse include:4, 8, 17

  • Change in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Finishing a prescription early.
  • Having trouble completing usual tasks at home, school, or work.
  • Isolating or changing friends.
  • Mood swings.
  • Quitting hobbies.
  • Showing signs of intoxication, including constricted pupils, slurring, or nodding off.
  • Stealing money, medications, or valuables.
  • Taking more medication than prescribed, or for longer than prescribed.
  • Using prescribed medications in a different way than prescribed.
  • Visiting more than one doctor for prescriptions, going to urgent care or the hospital for extra medication, or getting illegal drugs.

Opioid Treatment Options & Rehab

People with an opioid use disorder (OUD) can be treated with medications combined with behavioral counseling. The first step of treatment is dealing with the uncomfortable process of opioid withdrawal. For someone who is physically dependent on opioids, symptoms of withdrawal may appear within 6 hours to a couple of days, depending on what type of opioids have been used.17

Symptoms may include:17, 23

  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Anxiety.
  • Cravings.
  • Depression.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Enlarged pupils.
  • Excessive yawning.
  • Fever.
  • Goosebumps and chills.
  • Increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Insomnia.
  • Irritability.
  • Muscle and bone pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Runny nose.
  • Sweating.
  • Tearing eyes.
  • Vomiting.


While opioid withdrawal can be painful and uncomfortable, it generally is not life-threatening.23 A medical detox allows medical staff to monitor for potentially dangerous and uncomfortable complications that can develop quickly, lower the risk of relapse, and ensure the safety of the individual during withdrawal.23 In addition, medications can be provided to reduce symptoms of withdrawal. This is known as medication-assisted treatment.23

Opioid withdrawal is generally managed with either methadone or buprenorphine, both of which reduce symptoms of withdrawal and reduce cravings to allow the person to detoxify comfortably and safely.4, 6, 16, 27 Because detox doesn’t address the underlying causes of addiction, behavioral counseling is strongly recommended. This may include inpatient or outpatient treatment, where counseling is provided, along with additional medication-assisted treatment if needed.16

AAC takes addiction seriously and approaches treatment with a whole-body approach. Treatment plans take into account not just substance use, but also mental health, physical health, social concerns, and anything else that may be going on. These plans evolve throughout the program as you progress in recovery.

Treatment is provided through a combination of various types of groups using different counseling techniques to address coping skills, trauma, grief, anger management, communication skills, and relapse prevention. Individual counseling and psychiatric care are also provided as needed.

AAC operates 8 rehab facilities across the United States, making access to opioid treatment easy no matter where you live. These facilities provide a continuum of care, from medical detox to inpatient treatment to outpatient services, to meet all your recovery needs. For more information about AAC’s services and how they can help you on the road to recovery give us a call

Opiates vs Opioids: Is There A Difference?

Opioids are substances that interact with opioid receptors in the body’s central nervous system.1 Opioid is an umbrella term that includes natural opioids, semi-synthetic opioids derived from natural opioids, and synthetic opioids created in a laboratory.2, 3 They dull the senses and relieve pain, acting as pain relievers or anesthesia.2 Opioid drugs are a group of drugs that includes opiates, which are natural derivatives of the poppy plant.2, 3 The main difference is that opiate refers specifically to the substances derived from the opium (poppy) plant, while Opioids are all substances that interact with the opioid receptors including those created in the lab. Opioids tend to have a high likelihood of abuse and fall into Schedule I or II of the controlled substances categories.

Types of opiates include:2, 3

Types of opioids include:2, 3

Other Opioid Topics & FAQs

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