Guide to Opioid Side Effects on the Brain & Body

Over 10 million Americans misused opioids in the United States during 2018, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A long-term addiction can lead to irreversible damage to your brain and body.

Opioid addiction is long-lasting chronic disease that can cause major health, social, and financial problems.

Opioid addiction “is characterized by a powerful, compulsive urge to use opioid drugs, even when they are no longer medically required.” – National Institutes of Health

Addiction is a progressive disease and may be more noticeable to those surrounding a user before they come to terms with their addiction themselves. While addiction is often made up of many internal, emotional symptoms, there are many behavioral and physical signs of abuse.

Keep in mind that not all people who exhibit these signs are addicted to opioids or other substances — and not all opioid users will show these signs of abuse. For help understanding your unique situation, call The Hope House addiction specialists.

Signs of Opioid Addiction

Physical <br/> Signs

Physical
Signs

Opioid Addiction May Physically Present As:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Sleeping at odd hours
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Changes to appetite
  • Lack of hygiene
  • Drowsiness
  • Small pupils
Behavioral <br/> Signs

Behavioral
Signs

Opioid Addiction May Present In Behaviors As:

  • Avoiding contact with friends of family
  • Changes in friends or hobbies
  • Increased isolation
  • Moodiness, irritability, or nervousness
  • Overly energetic or extremely sad
  • Stealing
  • Missing important professional or personal appointments

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Signs of Opioid Addiction

The American Psychiatric Association identifies 11 symptoms of opioid addiction, including:

  1. Taking more opioids or using them for longer than prescribed
  2. Developing a tolerance requiring increased dosage
  3. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

As with many addictions, a substance use disorder is diagnosed on a spectrum. Experiencing 2-3 symptoms indicates a Mild Opioid Use Disorder, 4-5 indicates a Moderate Opioid Use Disorder, and experiencing 6 or more symptoms is indicative of a Severe Opioid Use Disorder.

While understanding the clinically recognized symptoms of opioid addiction is important, only a licensed physician can formally diagnose you and help you find treatment.

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Short-Term Mental Effects

The effect of opioid addiction can vary based on the severity of the addiction and what type of opioid is used.

Studies have also shown significant size changes in several critical areas of the brain, even when patients take opioids as prescribed. These changes remained even months after patients discontinued opioids.

Common Mental Effects

Euphoria

Euphoria

Pain-Relief

Pain-Relief

Confusion

Confusion

Drowsiness

Drowsiness

Long-Term Mental Effects

Opioids lead to drastic changes to the way the brain functions and how it causes a dependence to be built. Over time, the frequent use of opioids leads to neurological changes that alters the brain’s reward system. This promotes continued drug use, forming a cyclical problem that creates and feeds addiction.

Repeated exposure to escalating doses of opioids causes the brain to function normally when drugs are present and abnormally when they are not.

Opioid users exhibit a higher rate of:

Anxiety

Anxiety

Depression

Depression

Bipolar

Bipolar

Opioid users are 10 times more likely to use inpatient mental health services and those with a dual diagnosis (co-occurring mental health disorder) have significantly higher amounts of emergency room visits.

Overall, there are a number of problematic opioid side effects that can change and alter the brain; however, the problem doesn’t stop there. Opioids can have a major effect on the way the body operates as well.

What are the Effects of Opioids?

Opioid addiction affects the mind and body common side effects including: nausea, constipation, drowsiness, confusion, overdose and more.

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Short-Term Physical Effects

Opioid abuse has numerous side effects on the body like slowed breathing, sweating, muscle aches, chills, and GI bleeding. Many of the serious effects are capable of setting in shortly after taking the drugs.

Most Common Physical Effects

Constipation is a problem that frequently happens when taking opioid medications. It is something that occurs in 45% to 90% of users.

Stomach issues like nausea and vomiting can be common side effects of opioid use and occurs in about 25% of users.

Opioid misuse can cause a respiratory condition called Hypoxia, a problem that occurs when too little oxygen reaches the brain. The condition doesn’t allow enough oxygen in the tissues to sustain bodily function. Hypoxia itself can lead to both short-term and long-term problems including permanent brain damage, coma, and death.

Long-Term Physical Effects

The most serious long-term physical effects of opioids occur when users switch from oral opioids to injectable opioids, like heroin. More than 80% of injectable opioid users started with prescribed opioid pills.

One of the most dangerous potential side effects of opioid abuse; however, is an overdose.  

Severe Long-Term Effects

“Opioids account for more deaths than any other medication.”  

Typically, opioids increase the risk of death through other causes including: accidents due to impairment, overdose (especially when using benzodiazepines simultaneously), and contracting infectious diseases through intravenous drug use.

Infectious endocarditis is a life-threatening infection of the heart. While previously seen more frequently in elderly adults, the infection has been on the rise in young people who use injectable opioids, such as heroin.

Nearly 34,000 people are treated for this problem each year and 20% die from the infection. For those who do survive, they are often left with lasting cardiovascular issues.

With so many users taking injectable opioids, the risk of bloodborne infections is serious. Over the last decade the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a 350% increase in new Hepatitis C diagnosis. Many of these occur because of the opioid epidemic.

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What is Opioid Overdose?

Opioids affect a portion of the brain that is associated with regulating breathing. When people take too many opioids, high doses of opioids, or mix opioids with other substances, it can lead to an overdose which can cause death.

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

People who have taken too many opioids will show a few common symptoms if they are experiencing an overdose:

  • A limp body
  • Extremely pale or clammy skin
  • Unconsciousness
  • Cannot be woken up or are unable to speak
  • Breathing or heartbeat will slow or stop
  • Vomiting or gurgling noises

How to Reverse an Opioid Overdose

To help combat opioid overdose death Naloxone (commonly referred to by its brand name Narcan) was produced. It can reverse the effects of an overdose and potentially save lives. The medication is typically administered via injection and rapidly binds with the opioid receptors in the body. This both reverses the effects of any opioids currently in the system and prevents the effects of any opioids that enter the body after Naloxone has been administered.

Prevent an opioid overdose with addiction treatment.

Is Heroin an Opioid?

Yes. Heroin is part of a class of drugs that are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. This class of drugs includes prescription painkillers, as well as, illegal opiates like heroin and opium.

Signs of Heroin Use

While some signs of heroin use may be the same as opioid use, there are other tell-tale signs. Track marks are one of the biggest known signs of heroin use. They are the markings and scars on the body from the use of a heroin needle.

Other signs can include:

  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Nervousness
  • Itchiness
  • Insomnia

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