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What Are Opiates?

What Are Opiates?

Opiates are substances that are derived from the opium poppy plant. Opiates may vary in structure and effects on the body, but in general are very similar. These narcotics, both natural and synthetic, bind to opioid receptors in the brain, depressing the central nervous system and relieving pain.

Opiates include prescription pills and injectable medications such as morphine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, Oxycodone, Vicodin, and codeine. These opiates are used in the medical field to treat severe and often chronic pain, such as from an ongoing illness or the result of an accident or injury. This family of drugs also include heroin, which is illegal and strictly used for the high it produces.

Dangers of Opiate Abuse

Opiate medications, when used correctly, provide much-needed pain relief to millions. However, because of the way these medications work on the brain’s reward center, they are very addicting and are commonly abused. In fact, opiates are the most commonly abused substances in America today. When abused, opiates cause dependence, addiction, and even overdose and death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
  • An estimated 2 million people in the United States suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 suffer from a heroin use disorder (not mutually exclusive).

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH):

  • Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.
  • An estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.
  • About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
  • Opioid overdoses increased 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas in 45 states.
  • The Midwestern region saw opioid overdoses increase 70 percent from July 2016 through September 2017.

Side Effects of Opiate Abuse 

When used correctly, opiates provide pain relief. When abused, they cause a feeling of euphoria, as the brain is flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine. The person craves that good feeling as soon as it is gone, causing them to want more of the substance. This quickly leads to physical dependence and addiction to the substance.

When opiates are overused, they cause the nervous system to become severely depressed, decreasing breathing to a dangerous level and causing extreme drowsiness, coma, and even death.

The History of the Opiate Epidemic in America

We can trace the modern opiate epidemic back to the 1990s, as pharmaceutical companies started producing medications that were finally able to help patients effectively manage pain. As their popularity increased, more and more doctors began prescribing these medications, which led to a higher supply to be abused by those who were addicted. Around 2010, public awareness increased about the dangers of these medications and they became harder to get. Opiate addicts found heroin to be an easier drug to obtain, and in many cases, a cheaper drug, so heroin abuse and overdoses skyrocketed.

Today, government and community agencies work to educate the public about the dangers of opiates, and stricter regulations on the prescribing and dispensing of these drugs have been implemented. Still, opiates remain some of the most effective forms of pain relief available, which means there are still many of these medications in circulation.

In order to battle the opiate addiction epidemic, it is important for those who need this form of pain relief to be careful and only use these medications as directed. Unwanted pills should be disposed of properly. Doctors should monitor patients on opiates closely for dependence and abuse. When used with caution, opiates continue to be beneficial to many.

Treatment for Opiate Addiction

Treatment for opiate addiction is effective. The first step in recovery is detox, which lasts from a few days to a week for most people.

Withdrawal symptoms of opiate addiction include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • A Runny nose
  • Insomnia
  • Yawning
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Goosebumps
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heart beat
  • High blood pressure

Medication-assisted detox is often used for patients withdrawing from opiates. By using the drug Suboxone, the medical staff is able to provide much-needed relief for opiate withdrawal, reduce cravings, and help the individual focus on getting their life back together and staying sober.

Once the person has detoxed from opiates, it is important for them to participate in therapy and counseling sessions to help them identify and understand the causes of their addiction, as well as help build coping skills, learn stress-relieving techniques, and develop strategies to deal with difficult interpersonal relationships in their life. As the person learns and practices these skills, they heal from their addiction and take control of their life once again.