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There are side effects to consider when using opiates short-term or long-term, prescribed or illegal. Some of the side effects are mild, others are much more serious and particularly with long-term opiate abuse.

Opiate addiction side effects can be far-reaching and ultimately devastating; whilst drug addiction has a great impact on the abuser, it can also seriously affect family, friends and colleagues.

Direct Side Effects of Opiate Abuse

Short or long term use of opiates, particularly if the person has an addictive nature, will result in negative issues not only for the user, but also for friends, family and work colleagues. Prolonged use will affect the brain’s ability to produce endorphins, like dopamine, naturally, hindering the body’s ability to deal with pain or stress. As the brain becomes more affected, the opiate user starts to rely on the opiate more in order to manage pain and gain that euphoric high of happiness they had at the start. This is known as an abuser’s tolerance level.

In the United States, it is estimated that 37% of adults will, at some point in their life, be an opiate addict. The highest rate of opiate use, 82%, is in adults of 29 years old and younger; the rate decreases with age. Overall, it is considered that men are twice as likely as women to become opiate addicts. It is quite common for opiate users to be suffering from another co-occurring illness, such as:

  • Depression.
  • Alcohol or other substance abuse.
  • Eating disorders, i.e. bulimia, anorexia.
  • Antisocial personality disorder; schizophrenia.
  • Anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder.

Potentially, anyone taking opiates can become addicted. However, scientists hypothesize that there are a number of factors that can lead to addiction, which include:

  • Genetic – research has indicated that some people are genetically likely to become an opiate abuser, such as a family member.
  • Biological – a theory suggests that where someone’s body doesn’t produce enough endorphins, the resulting chemical imbalance may lead to opiate use in order to help cope with the mood swings and feelings of negativity.
  • Psychological – theory indicates that for some, the use of opiates to help relieve pain may lead to addiction as the individual may feel that they are better able to cope better in social and professional situations, experience less anxiety and feel in a better mood when using opiates.
  • Environmental – it is suggested that the use of opiates may be based around somebody close to the user. For example, if a family member has used opiates for pain relief, becomes addicted and continues to use opiates despite the absence of pain, the potential opiate user may believe that this is an acceptable way of coping with life’s stresses.

As with most opiates, it is recommended to refrain from drinking alcohol at the same time as taking the drug. This is because alcohol can increase the drug’s potency which may cause dangerous side effects or even be fatal. This applies to any foods that may be consumed which contain alcohol, too.

As opiates have a sedation effect, causing daytime drowsiness, users are told to avoid using any heavy machinery or driving a vehicle. If an opiate has been prescribed by a medical professional, follow the recommended dosage instructions at all times and if taking for pain reasons, make sure that the doctor is advised when the pain has consistently subsided. The reason for this is that the sudden withdrawal of an opiate may result in side effects that are extremely uncomfortable.

It is possible that some people will have an allergic reaction to an opiate, that is, Methadone or morphine, and they should avoid taking that drug and seek advice from their doctor immediately. This is particularly relevant to people that suffer from asthma or those who have paralytic ileus (a bowel obstruction).

Although prescribed opiates have been through clinical trials to discover any adverse reactions and their use safety, these trials are not fully conclusive and the effects of the opiate may be different in reality. For example, Oxycontin was in a double blind clinical trial involving 713 patients who were suffering from moderate to severe pain. In an open-label study of cancer pain, 187 patients were prescribed Oxycontin in daily total doses of between 20 and 640mg; the average daily dose was 105mg1. Dosage levels that are too high and not according to strict guidelines for non-opiate tolerant people may cause fatal respiratory depression.

Opiates carry the risk of serious adverse reactions, such as apnoea (lack of breathing), respiratory arrest, circulatory depression, high blood pressure (hypertension) and shock. The most common direct side effects include:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Constipation, loose stools.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Headaches.
  • Sweating and hot flashes.
  • Stomach and/or blood ulcers.
  • Gastritis.
  • Fever, chills.
  • Nutritional and metabolism disorders, that is, anorexia.
  • Twitching and connective tissue disorders.
  • Anxiety, irrational thoughts, panic attacks.
  • Sleep problems, abnormal dreams, insomnia.
  • Rashes.
  • Excessive hiccups.
  • Postural hypotension (low blood pressure).
  • Blurred or abnormal vision.
  • Blood/lymphatic problems.
  • Tinnitus.
  • Agitation, hallucinations, mood swings.
  • Renal/urinary disorders, that is, polyuria, dysuria and retention.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Reduced stimuli reaction.
  • Myoclonus (jerky motor movements).
  • Liver damage and kidney failure.
  • Decreased sexual activity.
  • Increased sensitivity.
  • Dehydration.
  • Lack of energy, lack of concentration.
  • Changes in diet and appetite.
  • Racing heart rate, stroke, heart attack.
  • Psychosis.

Other side effects that can be experienced during opiate withdrawal include seizures, thirst, being tired, chest pain, water retention and a change to the senses, such as taste and smell.

If the opiate is being injected by the user, there is a high risk of either a heart or lung problem. This could be due to solidified particles of the opiate becoming blocked in the bloodstream and causing inflammation. People who inject opiates will often have traces of needle marks, known as track marks, and these areas may become infected, inflamed and could be risk of septicaemia.

Psychological Side Effects of Opiate Abuse

More common in long term users of opiates are the potential psychological side effects due to the brain becoming reliant on the opiate to produce endorphins rather than creating these neurotransmitters naturally. Users may, in the early stages of opiate abuse, experience confusion and disorientation, a loss of memory and even amnesia. For any opiate user suffering from these side effects or worse psychological effects, there are two principal risks – more or different opiates are sought, thoughts of suicide or actual suicide.

Long term users may experience increased psychological issues, such as mood swings, hallucinations, delusions or delirium, and can lead to severe depression. Other side effects include:

  • Paranoia.
  • Increase in mental health issues.
  • Less emotional wellbeing.
  • Increase in symptoms of mental illness.

For some people, their coping mechanisms are seriously affected, experiencing extreme levels of negativity and mood swings. This, in turn, leads to further stress and alienation from family, friends and colleagues who struggle to deal with such a difference in the opiate user’s personality and character. These changes in behavior can, for some, be the hardest to deal with and can have the greatest impact on the support individuals are able to give.

There are some drugs available that are made up of similar chemicals to the illegal opiates. These are called New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and are known as ‘legal highs’. These drugs include:

  • Stimulants, i.e. mephedrone.
  • Sedatives, i.e. liquid ecstasy.
  • Hallucinogens, i.e. N-bombs.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids, i.e. spice and black mamba.

These drugs will have side effects, although they may not be as severe as the original opiate, but it is generally agreed that if these drugs are taken long term, they may still have a negative impact on a person’s mental health.

Indirect Side Effects of Opiate Abuse

As well as the physical and mental side effects of opiate abuse that we’ve talked about, there are also a range of indirect side effects that result from long term opiate abuse. These effects also have an impact on the abuser’s family, friends and colleagues, and include:

  • Domestic abuse / child abuse.
  • Loss of family and can lead to divorce.
  • Loss of friends, leading to isolation.
  • Problems at school or work.
  • Job loss, which may lead to financial ruin.
  • Homelessness.
  • A criminal record and possible jail time.

In the early stages of opiate use, family, friends and work colleagues may not notice any physical or psychological changes, other than perhaps recognising that the person is happier and more able to cope with everyday life. But over a period of longer term use, these changes in the person will have an impact on their social acceptance, as well as any group activities. Getting high means that often the person will not be capable of enjoying the company of friends and family, and will find themselves more and more isolated. In extreme cases, the need for more and more opiates may result in lying and stealing money to pay for the drug.

The paranoia may impact friendships, sometimes becoming aggressive and violent towards people. For sports people, using opiates will potentially end any career as the drug will affect the physical and mental demands of sport.

Opiates affect a person’s body to function normally and affect a slowness in response times, while also affecting judgement and decision making capabilities. This may well have an impact on employment, careers and any lifestyle decisions. Performance levels may drop, coordination may be impaired and mood swings will have an effect on working relationships, all of which may lead to reduced social acceptability.

What started out as an aid to relieve pain or deal with stress can fast become a whole new set of issues to handle. While opiates are useful to help in the management of pain, they have a dark side. They are among the most abused drugs in the United States as they are all too easy to get a hold of, legally or otherwise and very, very addictive -- a dangerous combination. However, recovering from opiate abuse can be accomplished.

If you or a loved one is experiencing the side effects of opiate abuse, contact a treatment center today to get the help you need and deserve.