A person’s opioid receptors are located on nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body. Drugs that affect these receptors fall into the category of opioids. When opioid drugs bind to a user’s opioid receptors, they reduce pain and negative emotions. Morphine is the original opioid; medical resources commonly view it as the hallmark drug of its kind, and other opioids are described in relation to the effects of morphine.
Opiates are a subcategory of drugs within the opioid category which refers to naturally-occurring opioids. Morphine, heroin, and codeine are examples of opiates. These drugs are developed from the opium plant and processed into powerful medicinal substances that have high potential for abuse and addiction.
Synthetic opioids are man-made drugs designed to mimic or surpass the effects of natural opiates. Some examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and tramadol. While synthetic opioids are often designed with medical use in mind, their potency places them at the top of the list of dangerous narcotics that are commonly abused and overdosed upon in the United States and around the world.
Numerous opioids are manufactured and prescribed as medicinal painkillers to be taken as a strictly supervised regimen. They can come in the form of pills, tablets, and skin patches. In addition, many opioids and opiates are sold illicitly as powder, which can be smoked, snorted, or prepared and injected. Heroin is most commonly injected and certain opioids that mimic it, such as fentanyl, can be as well.
Opioid use is marked by a sense of profound calm and relaxation as worries and physical ailments melt away. Stronger opioids produce a soporific effect which leaves users in a semiconscious state, or “nap.” The comedown period that follows can last for several hours, putting users into a fog of mental and physical dissociation and heaviness.
Because of their powerful painkilling and euphoric properties, opioids are among the most commonly-abused narcotics in the world. They are also among the most dangerous: opioids were responsible for nearly 70% of all overdose-related deaths in the United States in 2018, with two out of three of those deaths involving synthetic opioids. The dramatic spike in opioid abuse, trafficking, overdose, and related deaths in the past decade is known as the opioid epidemic. Over 11 million people in the United States reported using narcotic painkillers (opioids) without a prescription in 2018.
Overdose is a constant danger for any opioid user. It occurs when a person takes enough of the drug for its negative effects to lead to life-threatening circumstances and, since there is no medical care to direct how much a person uses, every injection poses the risk of overdose. Heroin use slows one’s breathing and heart rate, sometimes to dangerous levels. In the event of overdose, a person in a semiconscious state is unable to help themselves and may fall into a coma, choke on their own vomit, or lose oxygen to the brain, resulting in hypoxia. Even if they don’t cause death, these complications can cause irreversible brain damage.
Opioid use begins to negatively affect a user’s mind even after the first use. As a habit develops, a person begins to live inside a mental fog of high and comedown, marked by a growing detachment from work, school, family, and personal relationships.
In the short term, opioid abuse puts users at risk for dehydration and malnourishment through consistent vomiting and diarrhea. This can turn deadly if a person vomits and can’t clear their airway while in the semiconscious state brought on by drug use.
Consistent opioid abuse can lead to long-term consequences on the body and mind, including an increased risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases by sharing injecting tools like needles. Other long-term effects can include:
For some users, withdrawal is a highly uncomfortable but ultimately non-life-threatening experience. In more severe cases, opioid withdrawal can lead to dangerous conditions including heart failure, seizures, coma, and muscle spasms, making it especially important to get professional help when taking this step. Most people who go through detox to wean themselves off of stronger opioids do so medically, meaning they take smaller and smaller amounts of the drug under medical guidance to avoid sudden changes in their body and mind.
Opioid withdrawal presents a wide array of symptoms, including:
Withdrawal can begin mere hours after last use, making it a constant priority for those struggling with addiction to acquire a steady stream of the drug. Depending on the specific drug, withdrawal peaks in 1-3 days. Acute withdrawal symptoms can begin to fade after 5-10 days or longer. However, after overcoming the initial withdrawal, a user may experience Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. This is a collection of continued withdrawal symptoms that can last for months or years after the acute withdrawal period.
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