Opioids: What are they and how do they affect us?

At Behavioral Health NV, we talk a lot about opioids and seeking treatment for substance abuse and opioid addiction. But what exactly are opioids? Let’s break down exactly what opioids are, what types of drugs are classed as opioids, how they affect the brain, and how opioid withdrawal affects the body.

What are opioids and what types of drugs qualify as opioids?

Opioids are a class of drug that include both legally available prescription drugs and illegal street drugs. The most common illegal opioid is heroin. Legal forms of opioids include drugs that doctors sometimes prescribe to help with pain relief, like hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and many others. Naturally occurring opioids — including heroin and morphine — are derived from the opium poppy plant. But synthetic opioids — like fentanyl — exist too. Legally prescribed forms of opioids are generally safe when taken for a short period of time and as directed by a doctor. 

How do opioids affect our brains?

Opioids work by targeting the brain’s reward system and giving the user a rush of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in how we feel pleasure. Since opioids target the brain’s pleasure receptors, they cause a euphoric feeling in many people. Opioids are incredibly addictive, and when misused, a psychological addiction can occur within a few days. A physical dependency can develop within a matter of weeks. Opioid addiction is a disease that is caused by the brain’s dependency on the drug. Approximately 2 million people in the United States abuse opioids. 

Our brains actually manufacture their own opioids in smaller doses, which are responsible for decreasing physical pain and preventing depression and anxiety. When people use opioids frequently, their brains adjust to the intake of excess opioids and their stimulation of the dopamine receptors. Eventually, the brain stops being able to function and produce its own opioids normally without the presence of the added opioids. This adjusted brain function and dependency on the additional intake of opioids is what causes opioid addiction.

Physical symptoms of opioid addiction include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Small — or “pinpoint” pupils
  • Slowed or shallow breathing
  • Constipation
  • Itching and scratching
  • Decreased physically coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scars from intravenous use, or “track marks”

People addicted to opioids take the drugs in a manner not prescribed by a doctor, or they take heroin. Common means of administration include swallowing, injecting or snorting the drugs.

How opioid withdrawal affects the body

When someone takes opioids for a prolonged period of time, their body and brain become used to the presence of the added opioids. Eventually, the brain will become desensitized to the opioids and require more to function properly. Because extended use of opioids affects the way our brains work, stopping use can cause physical and mental symptoms. 

There are several factors that determine how severe someone’s withdrawal from opioids might be, including how long the person has taken opioids, what dosage they take, and more. Because of this, everyone experiences withdrawal from opioids differently and on a different schedule. But there are a few things that can be expected of opioid withdrawal.

In the first 24 hours:

  • Muscle aches or pains
  • Restlessness and inability to sleep
  • Anxiety 
  • Runny nose and teary eyes
  • Sweating
  • Frequent yawning

After the first day:

  • Diarrhea and abdominal pain and cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Goosebumps on the skin
  • Dilated pupils and blurred vision
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

Opioid addiction is incredibly unpleasant, but symptoms usually begin to subside and improve after 72 hours. Within a week, most people notice a significant decrease in their symptoms. Methadone is a synthetic opioid agonist that is commonly given to people suffering from opioid withdrawal. It can help lessen the severity of the symptoms and make managing treatment much easier. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid addiction, help is available. Browse for addiction resources and find a treatment center close to you at behavioralhealthnv.org/get-help.

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