What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a kind of pain medication your doctor may administer to you after an accident or surgery, or as treatment for a chronic disease. Most are made from the opium plant and are made in a lab. Opioid may boost your levels of certain brain chemicals that block pain, slow your breathing, and generally make you feel tranquil.
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Opioids have different strengths, and some are legal and some aren’t. Examples include:
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
- Hydrocodone and acetaminophen (Lortab, Norco, Vicodin)
- Oxycodone and acetaminophen (Percocet)
How to Use Opioids
Ensure you follow the doctor’s prescription. It’s usually best to take them on a regular schedule. If you wait until the pain is severe, you might require more medication, which makes you more likely to have side effects.
Common Side Effects
All medications have side effects, and opioids are no exception. The most common one with short use is constipation. Others include:
- Hot flashes
- Erectile dysfunction
- Weak immune system
- Weight gain
The longer you take opioids, the greater the chances that your body will get dependent on them. If that happens, you may have withdrawal symptoms — like anxiety, a fast heart rate, sweating, nausea, and chills — when you stop taking them. This is more likely if you try to stop too quickly instead of tapering off slowly. Talk to your doctor about how to stop safely.
Dependence vs. Addiction
If you’ve become addicted to an opioid, you’ll have strong cravings for them that will be hard to resist. Other signs can include:
- Using more than your doctor prescribed
- Feeling powerless to stop the cravings
- Acting irresponsibly, possibly in an effort to get more drugs
- Mood swings, irritability, and feeling agitated
Short-Acting vs. Long-Acting
Short-acting opioids, like Vicodin or Percocet, get medication into your system quickly. When you take them as directed, like immediately after surgery, you probably won’t have any issues. But if you take them for too long, it may be hard to stop. Long-acting opioids, like OxyContin, give your body a smaller amount of medication over a longer time. They’re used to treat diseases that cause chronic pain, like fibromyalgia or arthritis.
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About 12% of people who take them for chronic pain become dependent on or addicted to them, causing some people to move on to street drugs. About 80% of people who use opioid heroin illegally say they abused a prescription one first. Heroin is often cheaper and easier to get.
What Raises Your Chances of Addiction?
Most people become addicted to opioids due to failure to follow their doctors’ instructions. However some people may be more likely to than others. This includes people who:
- Have a family history of substance abuse
- Have had addiction issues with alcohol, tobacco, or other substances
- Are in their teens or early 20s
Treatment for Addiction
Those who have become addicted may need a specific program that could include medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, counseling to deal with yearnings and depression, and guidance to help you avoid a relapse.
What to Do in Case of Overdose
The case of overdose can be deadly. If you think someone might have overdosed, call 911 right away. Warning signs include:
- A slow pulse
- Loss of consciousness
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Small pupils
Ask your doctor for a prescription nasal spray called naloxone (Narcan) that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose. You may be able to keep it on hand in case of an emergency.